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US man delivers miles of fiber

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When pushed, Wyler tries to dodge financial questions about Terracom. For example, the funding for the company comes from unnamed investors in the UK. In addition, Terracom does subsidize some of its services at the moment, but won't provide details on the scope of the price breaks. The firm highlighted its for profit intentions after laying off 136 workers, following the RwandaTel buy.

"I try not to talk about the investors or financial issues," Wyler said. "People tend to get caught up in that."

Photo of workers laying fibre in Rwanda

Laying fiber in Rwanda

While turning Terracom into a successful service provider is a long-term goal, the company will focus for now on laying more fiber and bringing cheap internet connections to as many people as possible. So far, close to 700 people have signed up for the combination ADSL and phone service, while thousands use free dial-up services.

Over the next few years, Terracom will work with Sun Microsystems to put 20,000 thin client computers in hundreds of Rwandan schools. The thin clients do not have power hungry processors, disk drives or fans and require about 20W as compared to a 200W PC. The power savings should make it possible to run the thin clients on solar power, according to Wyler.

Terracom plans to manage the servers behind the thin clients, and Sun will likely donate some of the gear in the project.

The need for solar power highlights just how difficult the actual practice of "bridging the digital divide" remains. That type of solution, though, stands as the only means of accomplishing such an ambitious project.

"If you grow up in an environment where you live in a mud hut and you don't even have a screwdriver, it's hard to participate in the world economy," Wyler said. "You don't know the tools. So we need to move to where everybody in the country can work on new tools that can aid a developing nation and help bring the economy up to speed."

A number of countries around Africa have contacted Terracom with the hopes of establishing their own high-speed networks. The company, however, remains cautious about stretching beyond Rwanda.

"Everybody wants us to do this in their country," Wyler said. "In order for us to even think about expanding, the country would need to have a political environment that is clean and forward thinking. If we can get the computing density up in Rwanda, then it's a great model for these other countries."

For Wyler, the major quest revolves around making Rwanda an attractive place to do business for technology entrepreneurs eyeing Africa. If the country can outpace neighbors, then it could become a type of IT hub in the region.

On a broader scale, the high-speed network can help with other humanitarian projects taking place in the country. Aid workers could, for example, track those infected with HIV more efficiently by taking laptops out into the field and sending data back to a central database. In addition, the schools can tap into free course material from the likes of MIT or Stanford.

Wyler doesn't claim that the next Google or imeem will appear overnight in Rwanda, and that's refreshing. He does, however, think the country can develop a very real internet economy, and that's believable. ®

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