Wednesday, November 09, 2005

WiMAX for the developing world?

Yeah yeah, "they don't need computers they need food!" in a perfect world development would take place in logical steps at the same time complementing other development efforts... but thats not the real world. In the real world you have things like (something I learned about that continually miffs me) Oxfam Australia, Great Britain, US, and a few others I think all in Phnom Penh; all doing different projects, vying for money with serious overlap in spending (Com'on guys you could at least share something like administrative costs) and you also (more to the point) have development taking place at different stages in the same area. Computers are a case in point. When I was working with a Dairy Coop in Eastern Europe I initially thought that "bringing computers etc to these areas is not what these people need", I stand by what I said even now but that’s not the whole story. You can't force something on people, and many times they are going to want what is new and cool (to varying degrees), I didn't think my village needed computers when I got there but after a year I tried setting up a project using old computers (cheap), Linux (yeah you can get pirated windows easily but it was the principle of the matter, an NES emulator, and some game pads and start a gamming cafe. Why?! Well I noticed in many developing countries these computer cafes are not really used for the internet much at all, maybe IM and a bit of email but that’s it, the main cash cow is games. In the rural areas kids would love to play even simple NES games and pay a few cents an hour to do so; I can already hear the "gasp, you are going to get them hooked on games?!" but consider the alternative, smoking, drinking, or just being bored (I saw all of the above, yeah even some under 12 year olds) playing games would not only generate income for someone, it would give the kids something to do, and also get them familiar with using computers (even if it is only for games, my brother almost refused to learn about computers until he got into gaming, now he can build his own computer from just parts).

Enter WiMAX (bet you thought this was going nowhere eh?). This has more importance in say some of the pacific islands that are mentioned in the article but still. Wireless internet access! I remember (another small story) hearing about the explosive growth of cell phones in Africa (considering the poverty) and was disgusted but then a friend who had been pointed out that the infrastructure was often so bad that regular land lines could not be reliable maintained, also some people had made a living in some villages of having a cell phone like a phone booth and charging people for use who would otherwise have to travel to the nearest town, nice!

Still, many people, especially in developing countries, don't understand the internet and teaching things like email would be lost, on the older generations in particular but one "killer app" I have seen for the internet in developing countries is VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol). This is just a fancy way of making phone calls over the internet on the cheap and I have seen many many times even in Europe (though usually the people using the services are working there calling home) people making cheap long distance calls to call home. So. You are in a place like Moldova, in a village a few miles away from the nearest town, which only has one internet cafe, if you get something like WiMAX one savvy individual in each village (within range) could setup a VoIP connection. Something like this could be built upon giving kids lessons on how to use computers and Email/IM etc (essentially getting them hooked but I can think of worse addictions) then charging for use; even setting up simple gamming during non-peek calling times.