Michael Best on WiFi, in Digital Democracy class

Michael Best, fellow at the Berkman Center and longtime MIT Media Lab development expert, is talking about WiFi in the developing countries context today here in Hauser 104 at Harvard Law School.  He’s wonderfully skeptical, yet also hopeful about how we might use technology to “democratize” not only “consumers” but also “providers.”  “VoIP is a killer app,” he says, “and we want to live in an all-IP world.”  Why is it essential?  For small-scale entrepreneurs to succeed in some of the rural areas of developing countries that he’s focused on.

He’s talking about terrestrial technologies (non-satellite) as a means of establishing access to the Net.  Three possibilities: Wireless Local Area Network, via microwave radio (it’s what I’m using right now to post this blog entry); Wireless Metropolitan Area Network (might support some number of kilometers, some section of a city); and a Wireless Backhaul (providing basic point-to-point capacity between two high-gain transmitters and receivers for basic data and voice packet transmission).  There’s been confusion in the marketplace: 802.11b could work on all these technologies, but the properties would be different in each of these contexts.  He’s got some great information about how they used microwave (not so powerful as an oven) to create a Village Area Network, at 10 watts, covering 1 km. 

One interesting instantiation: the SARI project, which stands for Sustainable Access in Rural India, which he calls an “intervention.”  They create local Internet kiosks, connected to the Net at 70kbps and providing toll-quality voice services and data access.  The service area is 2,000 square km and their catchment is 32,000 people.  They’re 2 years deep, and now have 80 connections in 50 villages (average size is 1,000-person villages).  It may well be the highest density rural Internet kiosk connections project anywhere.   

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