Closing the divide

Part of Intel's global campaign to close the "digital divide" involves a pilot WiMax project in the remote Egyptian city of Oseem. Andrew Bossone went there to take a closer look at how the technology is being used to benefit the community.

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By  Andrew Bossone Published  March 1, 2007

Technologists dream of the day that the whole world is connected on a wireless internet network. That day is approaching more rapidly that most people think. In only a few years, cities will be connected by a series of internet base stations up to 40 kilometres apart and then local area networks will fan out from these stations to connect the population wirelessly. Surprisingly, the newest wireless internet equipment is not necessarily being deployed today in the most technologically advanced cities, but in some of the most remote and undeveloped areas in the world. Oseem, a dilapidated Egyptian city of 200,000 inhabitants, is one of the pilot locations for Intel's World Ahead programme that is using WiMax broadband technology.

Oseem would on the face of it be one of the last places on earth you would expect to find anybody developing a sophisticated communications network. The vast majority of the 200,000 residents cannot afford a computer, while few have the education to allow them to fully operate one anyway. So why would Intel decide that a place where it's common to see barefoot children running on dirt roads is ready for wireless broadband?

"Part of the whole issue is how you create the next billion users of the internet, and if you look at the next billion users they're not going to be in France and the United States, they're going to be around the world, and they're most likely going to be in rural environments around the world," Intel chairman Craig Barrett explains.

Bridging the so-called "digital divide" through initiatives such as the WiMax project in Oseem do benefit the poorest regions that lack the communications infrastructure of more developed areas. But these regions also represent some of the fastest growing markets because they are starting from scratch. By applying WiMax in a developing market, a firm like Intel can take advantage of the high growth rates in technology adoption and can test out WiMax in a number of different sectors that need upgrades.

"You should actually advocate the most sophisticated technology in the newer markets rather than older markets," says Sean Maloney, general manager for Intel's sales and marketing group. "New industries in emerging countries can leapfrog the older ones because they can put new infrastructure in."

Intel chose Oseem, which is about 45 minutes drive from Cairo, because the city lags behind in a number of key areas that could be improved through the deployment of WiMax technology; notably health care, education and government services. Thus, when WiMax is fully operational in Oseem, residents should get more out of such an initiative than people living in a developed city.

"[Oseem is] an area which is close to a big city, but is dramatically different in terms of infrastructure," says Barrett. "You see the needs for basic roads and water and sanitation and sewage and such. But you also see lots of kids running around who need an education if they are going to do anything with their lives."

Intel, through the Egyptian Education Initiative (EEI), is working with the country's government and other technology firms such as Microsoft to train teachers, students and administrators on using technology as part of education, as well as engineers and technicians to actually service and support the network and significant investments in hardware and interactive educational software.

"The students will benefit from the new information that they will access, and it will allow them to become involved in the teaching process," says Mohamed Mahgoub, an English teacher in Oseem. "The students looks at the screen, understands it and begins to form the answer for themselves."

Intel believes it is likely to be several years before the project can be scaled up to include some 36,000 schools in the country and start to have an overall impact on the education system. But WiMax is improving other services in Oseem. The city now has a mobile medical unit connected to a hospital in Cairo. The unit has a transmitter that communicates with the nearest WiMax base station with a direct line of sight to a tower in Cairo. In a city like Oseem, good medical treatment is a rarity. Most people have to travel to Cairo to get any kind of decent care.

"At the remote area, if the patient has a chronic and acute problem, what will he do?" says Dr Ossama El Gameel, a general practitioner at Qasr El Aini hospital, and a consultant for Shadi Systems, the local designer of telemedicine applications for the project. "The patient will go to the remote consultant and they give advice on his condition, but there are just junior doctors, there are no specialists.

"By telemedicine we provide the consultation needed and an investigation is done and a plan of care," he says.

Telemedicine represents the future of health care communication both in low-income cities like Oseem and in more developed ones. In Oseem, junior doctors can consult with more experienced doctors through an online videoconference, in a more economically viable model than using satellites, for example. In an emergency situation, a senior physician can offer life-saving advice. In places with better healthcare, telemedicine is becoming a solution to spiralling health costs. A comprehensive communication platform allows doctors and nurses to monitor patients at their homes and respond quickly if there is an emergency.

Although WiMax has several implications in the future for education and healthcare in Egypt, it will take large investments before it can be scaled up across the country. For the vast majority of residents in an underdeveloped city like Oseem, the e-government kiosk is the most tangible service they can use. In the last couple years the Egyptian government began offering up about 700 different services such as personal records, bill payment and licensing applications through the internet. But most people do not have a personal computer at home, so they have to visit local authorities. The antiquated paper system was convoluted and inefficient. Since the Egyptian government is highly centralised in Cairo or at regional government offices, documents require approval from any number of officials, while significant time is spent in travel. WiMax eliminates this through wireless connectivity and digital authentication.

WiMax is not just for the remote and underdeveloped areas. The technology can coexist with mobile networks to provide the fastest data transfer speed. So in Dubai, for example, the younger, more affluent population could use WiMax connectivity to download music and videos quickly - once phones are configured for both traditional mobile circuit networks and a WiMax internet protocol (IP)-based system. Then mobile operators will have to establish WiMax and governments will have to allocate dedicated and standardised spectrum for it. Currently WiMax is still in its first generation, so the cost is more than double the average DSL connection. In order for it to take off, Intel argues that technology firms will have to work together to develop it, and will have to relinquish proprietary rights to mass produce equipment.

"A wireless network to cover the planet that is designed for low cost is a big deal, so a lot of people have to make the emotional adjustment that they aren't going to have a proprietary advantage on it - including us," says Maloney.

“You see the needs for basic roads and water and sanitation and sewage and such. But you also see lots of kids running around who need an education if they are going to do anything with their lives.”

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