Al Hammond

A New Model for Rural Connectivity

What if the ultimate Internet access device turned out to be a phone? Yes, its already happening for a few in the rich world, but I’m talking about access for a billion people or more in the developing world, for which the driver is cost, not convenience. Despite all the efforts to spread Internet access, it is the mobile phone that has so far gone farther and faster into developing countries.

Cell phone services are very profitable, but they are not cheap for users. Use of text messaging, a data service that costs less than voice, has exploded where it is available. Now three disruptive technologies working together may bridge the divide even more effectively: fixed wireless networks (WiFI and WiMax) that are optimizied for data and are cheaper than mobile wireless; Voice-Over Internet Protocol (VOIP), that uses bandwidth efficiently; and WiFi phones (or mobiles with WiFi chips added on) that can provide local “walk-around” service within a local WiFi network.

This combination, described in more detail in a work-in-progress paper called A New Model for Rural Connectivity, can make local-to-local calls almost free. And phones don’t require tech support or pose literacy and language barriers–other aspects of the divide. Yet they can provide a growing list of phone and voice-based Internet services. Check out our thinking, give us the benefit of your comments and criticisms, help us update the list of devices and applications that support this model. And watch for updates.