NET NEWS: Villages to Join Internet--Without Wires

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Science  09 Apr 1999:
Vol. 284, Issue 5412, pp. 219
DOI: 10.1126/science.284.5412.219b

Costa Ricans will soon reap the benefits of a research project designed to show that cutting-edge wireless technology can link remote villages to the Internet, at a surprisingly low price. Called Unwiring the World, the project—sponsored by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT's) Media Lab and the Costa Rica Foundation for Sustainable Development—is supplying hardware and satellite linkages that give even mountain dwellers the ability to swap data at 1.5 megabits a second—the equivalent of a T-1 line.

Wireless can bring the Internet to the cyberwilderness, where people have little chance of ever getting a fiber-optic cable line. Academic institutions in Latvia and Mongolia, for example, are trying out wireless Net links. The MIT project, says the Media Lab's Alex Pentland, aims to hook up entire communities by taking advantage of new, cheap technology: Palm Pilot-sized devices that uplink to satellites and cost about $40. The lab, which demonstrated the project with a Costa Rica-Cambridge link last week, plans to equip 25 communities with “digital town centers” consisting of computers and other equipment housed in recycled shipping containers, at a total cost of $50,000. The hope is that communities will use them for everything from checking current crop prices to transmitting a sick patient's vital signs to a distant doctor.

Linking the entire world to the Net—what experts call “100% connectivity”–may be possible using wireless, says David Hughes, who runs a company called Old City Wireless Communications in Colorado Springs. But a key factor, he says, is connection costs. The Costa Rican villages will keep the price to about $3000 per year by buying their own satellite links rather than relying on outside providers who charge by the minute.

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