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Chinese eye $100 wireless laptop

Crucial for rural broadband deployment

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Broadband wireless has traditionally flourished in developing economies, as a relatively low cost way to bring broadband access to countries with limited infrastructure. But this does not mean that it is a technology for spreading access to poor users. In general, operators in new economies target enterprises, expatriates and other high income oases, leaving rural and low income groups pretty much untouched.

Ming Dong, a wireless analyst with Analysis in Beijing, made the point clearly. "Unlike in other nations where both the urban, suburban, and rural areas are fully developed, China's rural regions are still very underdeveloped, and inhabitants can't afford broadband access,” he commented, seeing the greatest potential for expanded access centering on communal hotspots.

Some efforts have been made by aid agencies, governments and community groups to extend access to underserved areas, often using a communal CPE (customer premises equipment), perhaps housed in a village hall. But serious attempts to bridge the digital divide remain largely a phenomenon of the developed nations, seeking to bring their poorer communities into the mainstream economy. Truly universal access depends on one factor more than any other – availability of ultra-low cost CPE. Currently, Wi-Fi is mainly available in laptops, smartphones and as part of a broadband home gateway, all devices that are priced at several hundred dollars or more. WiMAX, it is widely accepted, will only become a consumer market technology when it achieves similar or lower CPE costs. True, Wi-Fi cards are now trivial in cost, and WiMAX cards will fall below $50 by 2008, but they still have to be housed in a device that is expensive to the end user.

Research institutions and vendors are increasingly turning their thoughts to a more radical approach to CPE, one that could support mass market access in poor populations and so boost volumes enormously, and support a new range of business models for operators, whether commercial or publicly owned. Much of this work has, predictably, been centered in the country that has made the most proactive moves towards a strategy to broadband enable more of its vast low income population, India.

The country’s influential Center for Development of Telematics (C-Dot) is working with Alcatel, Wavesat, Intel and others on broadband wireless platforms with ultra-low cost user devices. One of the most important projects is a collaboration with the Canadian creators of the Milton (Microwave Light Organized Network) technology, to build a very low cost last mile option for rural parts of India. Milton was conceived as a link between the fiber backbone – which is widespread but underused in India – and the home and the plan is to move the proprietary elements of the design to standard 802.11a and 802.16-2004 standards in the near future using WaveSat silicon.

The Hundred Dollar Laptop

AMD, among others, has been working on very cheap, low footprint platforms for mass market wireless devices, but the latest concept that could shift the communications goal posts comes from Nicholas Negroponte, chairman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, who has outlined the blueprint for the so-called Hundred Dollar Laptop (HDL), a first step towards even lower cost devices in future.

The HDL that Negroponte posits would bypass three expensive components of conventional laptops - Microsoft Windows, a traditional flat panel screen, and a hard drive. Instead it will be loaded with Linux and other open source software; its display will use either a rear projection screen or a type of electronic ink invented at the MIT Media Lab; and it will store one gigabyte of files in flash memory.

Once turned on, HDLs will automatically connect to one another using a mesh network initially developed at MIT and the Media Lab – a spontaneous, carrierless method of broadband access that is also being worked on by Microsoft and Intel, both eager to see their core technologies being pushed out to the world’s entire population.

In Negroponte’s mesh, each HDL will act as the household email, telephone (using Skype or other free software) and internet access device. For communities without electricity, HDLs may be powered by either a crank or ‘parasitic power’ (typing). He claims that he has been talking to Chinese manufacturers that could build the HDL for under $100 providing there were committed orders of at least six million in the first year. Chinese authorities themselves have said they would be interested in buying two million machines and Brazil 1m, said Negroponte.

Negroponte writes: "Education: one laptop per child. Whatever big problem you can imagine, from world peace to the environment to hunger to poverty, the solution always includes education. We need to depend more on peer-to-peer and self-driven learning. The laptop is one important means of doing that."

This idealistic view verges on the naïve in a world where many of the communities to which Negroponte refers are close to starvation, but the concept could still be workable for people in the next economic tier, provided there was sufficient government or international funding – essential, primarily, to bear the costs of internet access and backhaul.

Low cost handsets

Less pure motives may also push technology and its benefits out to currently deprived sectors of the population. The development of very cheap cellular handsets is one example of a largely vendor-driven phenomenon, with most of the cellphone majors now on track to deliver sub-$50 devices in the next 1-2 years. Putting its considerable weight behind the trend is Texas Instruments, which this week chose India as the location to announce the availability of its single-chip technology for cellphone makers in emerging markets.

The platform combines functions such as memory, logic, power management, radio and network processes on a single chip to reduce size and power requirements and drive down costs of entry level GSM and GPRS phones. The chip was made available to Nokia at the beginning of the year and is now available to manufacturers in India and other emerging markets, claiming to reduce the bill of materials by 30 per cent, opening up the potential for a sub-$30 handset in the near future. Qualcomm is working on a similar low cost platform for CDMA.

Copyright © 2005, Wireless Watch

Wireless Watch is published by Rethink Research, a London-based IT publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter delivers in-depth analysis and market research of mobile and wireless for business. Subscription details are here.

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