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Reaching the far reaches of the world -- without wires

Less affluent, more remote areas benefit from wireless

By Greg Botelho

Broadband wireless technology allows a group of schools in South Africa to share teachers and information.
Technology (general)
Computing and Information Technology

(CNN) -- The wires that connect homes and businesses along Main Street America -- and the possibilities for communication and education -- often are hard to find in Africa and other parts of the less developed world.

The Ulwazi e-learning project, a venture between South African government officials and Motorola, attempts to make that connection, but without wires. Using wireless broadband technology, students and teachers in five schools across the country can "talk" to each other using virtual whiteboards, microphones and the World Wide Web.

In South African schools, one or two teachers are typically responsible for 50 to 100 students. This new technology allows schools to share teachers and resources so more students have access to more material.

By going wireless, less developed communities save a great deal of time and money by not having to build a vast "wired" infrastructure of above or underground fiber cables available in wealthier areas like the United States and Western Europe. Using just some basic wireless networking equipment and computers, the set-up is cost-effective and simple for teachers and students, according to those behind the project.

"Using this technology, the students can see the teacher, they can see the blackboard, and they can interact with each other," said Paul Budgin, who has worked for Motorola to set up the Ulwazi project. "It was amazing the letters I got back from the schools."

The project is just one example of how wireless technology is helping bridge the digital divide, giving people in less affluent or more remote areas a cheaper, more efficient and just as effective way to connect virtually. It's also blurring boundaries, allowing people to transfer text, sound and video from most any place in the world.

This technology has changed the face of many parts of rural America, increasingly giving those hundreds of miles from cities access to wireless broadband. PrairieNet, for example, connects 120 rural communities in rural Illinois and Iowa, while people in remote parts of Appalachia and on Indian reservations in North Dakota and elsewhere now also tap into the World Wide Web without a costly fiber-based infrastructure.

"From the top of the world at Mount Everest, where they use a [wireless] network, to the Dead Sea, where hotels down there also use wireless, wireless broadband has become a part of everyday life," said Frank Hanzlik, managing director of the Wi-Fi Alliance. "It reaches rural areas, marinas, truck stops, doctor's offices in small towns, schools [and] developing areas around the world."

Connecting the world

The growing use of wireless -- and the relatively low expense of setting up such a system compared to building a fiber-based network -- has made it more possible to set up hubs in previously far-flung places, such as the base camp at Mount Everest.

And cutting the need to build complex, costly infrastructure means skipping a big step that had long divided developed and less developed areas, says Dennis Stipati, the director of International Markets for Motorola's Canopy Wireless Broadband group.

"This allows people to stay connected and be involved around the world, and I think that it means a lot to each country to have [widespread Internet connectivity]," said Stipati. "It is really bringing the whole world closer together, and [wireless technology] is becoming a basic service."

The lower cost helps rural areas set up wireless networks, such as the Ulwazi e-learning project in Africa.

The rapid development of wireless -- with new Internet access points, computers and other equipment appearing several times a year -- means that technologies become "outdated" quicker in high-tech hotbeds like the United States, Europe, Japan and South Korea.

Such perfectly functional, if slightly slower equipment, can be donated or purchased cheaply by those in less developed areas of Africa, Asia and elsewhere. Hanzlik said this transfer further expedites the spread of wireless technology.

"It is opening up thanks to the opportunity to recycle equipment," he said. "Today, we may be talking about a 54 megabits-per-second connection. But a whole lot of folks can benefit from an 11 megabits-per-second connection."

Lower technology prices, donated equipment and a rise in wireless everywhere might allow more people in less developed, more remote areas to benefit from Internet connectivity -- in their homes, schools, libraries and elsewhere -- according to those in the field.

"To do these types of things allows students everywhere to get a good education, and to be competitive in the modern world," said Stipati. "We're enabling these different parts of the world to be connected."

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