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Solar power may soon bring the Web to remote areas

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"If I had to design a backbone network from scratch, I would use all three," says Mr. Aghion.

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In fact, developing countries have a unique opportunity to "leapfrog wired infrastructure," he says. The lack of competition from wired – or "legacy" – technology may allow them to deploy wireless networks much more quickly than could be done in developed countries, Aghion asserts.

Existing technologies like WiFi have been tried and tested only on a small scale. "Using [WiFi] for long range communications requires changes," says Mubaraq Mishra of the University of California's Berkeley Wireless Research Center. He has analyzed wireless Internet pilot projects in the southern Indian state of Kerala. What needs to be modified includes the way a WiFi network handles the information it transmits. Chip companies also have to adjust their hardware. "They need to support long distance WiFi," says Mr. Mishra.

But the major obstacles to spreading the Web may lie elsewhere. Global technology companies eager to tap into what is potentially a huge market often cosponsor or run their own wireless initiatives in the developing world.

The innovative and cheap equipment developed by other organizations may be viewed as competition, hampering cooperation. "The $100 laptop is disruptive technology; there are some corporate interests that find us threatening," says Prof. Mary Lou Jepsen of MIT and chief technology officer of OLPC.

Government red tape relating to radio spectrum licensing, rights of way, or import duties poses another major challenge. "Regulation related costs [can] account for over 45 percent of the total costs," says Mishra.

Wireless Internet in developing countries is for the most part uncharted territory. The potential benefits to developing communities are big, as are the market opportunities for global companies. But in view of the many uncertainties, the initial costs of deploying wireless networks have to be kept small if the Web is ever to get off the ground in these nations – not least because "we don't have a handle on the demand," says Mishra.

The Internet may bring cheap communications to remote communities, allowing them to access weather forecasts and health information, track market prices, or simplify dealings with authorities. But just how big the demand is for such information remains unknown, says Mishra.

World's first 'wireless country'

Formerly a part of Yugoslavia, and on the brink of ethnic war only a few years ago, Macedonia has become what may be the first "wireless country" in the world. With $3.9 million from the US Agency for International Development, the Macedonia Connects program has brought wireless Internet service to the country's 460 primary and secondary schools, which had already been equipped with 6,000 computers donated by the Chinese government.

On.Net, a Macedonian company, was contracted to build the $7 million wireless network. Instead of a myriad of WiFi hotspots, the network consists of a mesh of hot-zones – each stretching some 10 miles over cities and villages – that covers 95 percent of the country. After the schools were linked up almost a year ago, On.Net began offering the service to businesses and individuals. Now anybody with a WiFi enabled computer can tap into the network – free of charge in some areas, including parts of the capital, Skopje. Elsewhere in the country, users pay $20 or more a month for access.

In practice, however, only 13 percent of Macedonian households can actually access the Internet. People lack the money, have no computers, or as yet simply have no interest in the Web.