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Last Updated: Wednesday, 31 October 2007, 12:06 GMT
Intel backs wireless Africa plan
Craig Barrett
Intel chairman Craig Barrett is on a tour of Africa

Africa needs to embrace wireless broadband as a potential solution to the digital divide, the chairman of Intel Craig Barrett has said.

"It's cheaper, easier and more efficient to communicate wirelessly," he told the BBC News website.

Less than 1% of Africans have access to broadband and only 4% use the net.

The International Telecommunications Union has predicted that the Intel-backed Wimax system could become the dominant mobile standard in Africa.

The continent's geography and political barriers have made it difficult to roll out wired broadband.

There is a shortage of fibre cable links between African countries and very few states have extensive copper wire networks for ADSL broadband.

Mr Barrett, who is in Africa as part of the Intel World Ahead programme, said: "In every African country, except some of the more established economies, cell phones vastly outnumber fixed line phones.

"You always have to put the backhaul channels in - which is why you need an overlaid fibre network.

Mobile use in Rwanda
Mobile connections are far more prevalent in Africa than landlines

"Once you have that, forget about wires and twisted copper and go directly to broadband wireless technologies like WiMax."

Wimax is a long range, low power wireless broadband system which can be used to connect PCs and laptops, and in the future mobile phones, to a broadband network.

One internet consultant working in Africa on improving access to broadband, told BBC News that many countries had little choice but to adopt a wireless solution.

"Nigeria doesn't have much choice about skipping to Wireless, there is only one way to connect to the net and that is using wireless technologies.

"There is absolutely no copper to speak of."

In Nigeria many people access cell phone networks and wireless broadband by purchasing pre-paid scratch cards.

Users can pay up to $300 for a modem and about $200 for a 30-day scratch card, he said.

Despite the improving access to internet technology the cost for wireless technologies remains a barrier to all but a few in Africa, the consultant said.

Wimax is one of several competing technologies, which include Wibro and Ultra Mobile Broadband.

I don't think it's counterproductive to have our hand in more than one effort
Craig Barrett, Intel

Mr Barrett said Africa would not lose out if Wimax were not adopted more widely around the world.

"There are always those issues with any technology.

"We first started to give demonstrations of Wimax a couple of years ago. There are over 400 trial implementations around the world today and 100 commercial implementations."

According to the ITU, Wimax networks are currently being employed in nine countries in Africa.

Intel, in conjunction with Microsoft, has also begun the shipment of 150,000 laptops to Libya.

Intel has produced a rugged laptop designed for the developing world, called the Classmate PC.

The firm is also backing other efforts, such as the One Laptop Per Child XO machine and the Asus EEE PC.

"I don't think it's counterproductive to have our hand in more than one effort," said Mr Barrett.

"There are different education models associated with the different forms of hardware. We are a bit agnostic on which piece of hardware to support.

"It's more important to know the education model."

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