UN conference ponders Wi-Fi in developing nations

The importance of standards and a friendly regulatory climate in fostering wireless Internet growth in developing countries was emphasized Thursday during a conference at the United Nations (UN), organized by the Wireless Internet Institute think tank and the UN's Information and Communication Technologies Task Force.

Executives, academics, entrepreneurs and government workers from a number of nations gathered to discuss what's working and what challenges remain in introducing wireless networks to countries plagued by poverty and underdeveloped communication infrastructures.

Several speakers, including keynote presenter Patrick Gelsinger, chief technology officer of Intel, focused on the catalyzing role lenient regulatory statutes have played in spurring growth in nations with advanced wireless infrastructures.

Wireless services based on Wi-Fi cost less to deliver than do services offered through other broadband technologies such as DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) and 3G (third-generation) wireless, Gelsinger said, making Wi-Fi "the only way to build a broadband infrastructure" in developing nations. Wi-Fi is an interoperability specification for wireless LAN technology based on the IEEE 802.11 standards, but is often used loosely as a synonym for wireless LAN technology in general.

However, many of those nations are taking actions that are detrimental to Wi-Fi development, he argued.

"We're seeing developing nations be the slowest and the most conservative in terms of making unregulated, unlicensed spectrum available," he said. "We see this idea of a scarcity mentality, this 'We have this spectrum, we're holding onto it and maybe getting a few dollars from licensing it.' "

Gelsinger later clarified his remarks, saying that by "unregulated" he doesn't mean governments should take an entirely hands-off approach toward overseeing spectrum allocation, but rather that governments should set aside spectrum bands with no end-user licensing requirements for wireless device use, as the Federal Communications Commission has done in the U.S.

Regulatory obstacles were the biggest challenge South African ISP (Internet service provider) UniNet Communications faced in setting up a wireless network in Mozambique, spokesman David Jarvis said. The government was initially "very obstructionist," and UniNet had to lobby persistently for the permissions it needed.

"Faith in government-led policy reform is wishful thinking," he said.

Several speakers who have worked on communication infrastructure projects in developing nations spoke about the practicalities of tackling such initiatives. UniNet found that a large-scale commercial services roll-out is impractical; service needs to be offered in smaller, more easily implemented chunks, Jarvis said.

GrameenPhone Ltd. founder Iqbal Quadir spoke about how coordinating with local entrepreneurs is helping GrameenPhone build a cellular phone network and customer base in Bangladesh. While individuals in developing countries may be to too poor to be attractive customers for profit-seeking businesses, those individuals collectively represent a valuable customer base, he said. Working in conjunction with micro-lender Grameen Bank, GrameenPhone enables citizens in Bangladesh to open their own small businesses, purchasing phones and reselling the use of those phones to others in their community. Last year, the company generated US$44 million in net income, Quadir said.

A number of sessions at the conference focused on the technical aspects of deploying Wi-Fi technology, but one speaker warned against a shortsighted obsession with technology for its own sake.

"It's always frustrating. The international development community has fallen so in love with technology, and is almost the only part of the world that didn't learn the lessons of the dot-com crash: It's not the technology. What problem are you trying to solve?" said Paul Meyer, co-founder of IPKO (Internet Project Kosovo), an ISP that grew out of the creators' desire to more efficiently provide Internet connectivity to humanitarian relief groups operating in Kosovo.

"Technology companies are a lot better than international development agencies at building infrastructure," he said. "I want to challenge everyone here to think less about the networks and standards, and to think about the problems people really have in the kinds of countries you're talking about. Technology is one little building block as part of the solution."

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