Monday, February 25, 2008

Reality Check: Radio Plus Cellphones Beat Low-Cost Laptops

Real-world experience from Malawi suggests cell phones and radio will have a greater impact than Nicholas Negroponte's One Laptop Per Child initiative. You hear a very similar story from nearby Mozambique, where radio programs are developed and radios are distributed to fight malaria, among other things. I think if you follow these observations to their logical conclusion, it could lead to major improvements in the delivery of health and medical care in the poorest parts of the world.

Here's the missing piece: the idea of accessing the Internet over the radio. This is what's commonly referred to as wireless access in the U.S.

Usually, wireless access to an Internet node occurs over very short distances--say from our desk to your couch or New York Public Library to nearby Bryant Park.

But technically speaking, as I understand it, there's nothing that would prevent anyone from transmitting a wireless (or radio) signal over much longer distances to access the Internet. The sticking point in the U.S. is, of course, current broadcast regulations.

But what's the regulatory situation in Malawi--or other developing countries? What's to stop them from allowing long-distance radio transmission to access the new broadband cable connections that are being planned now to connect parts of eastern and southern Africa? The infrastructure for radio is already in place. Makes a lot of sense to leverage what's already there--along with cell phone towers and service--to solve the last-mile problem in Internet access.

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