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Solar power may soon bring the Web to remote areas

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"One laptop per child" was the ambitious promise a group of MIT faculty members made to the world in January last year. The idea to develop and produce millions of simple, Internet-capable $100 laptops and give them to the poorest kids on the planet sounded appealing. But just how children in remote villages in sub-Saharan Africa were supposed to hook up to the Internet was unclear.

The solution may come out of thin air. Literally. All you need is a rooftop and the sun, claim the inventors of a solar-powered wireless device. "Green" initiatives like theirs, together with a range of wireless technologies, may extend the Internet's reach to developing communities around the globe.

An increasing number of politicians, entrepreneurs, and organizations (including the United Nations) hail the Web as a tool with the potential to help transform developing societies. Access to it provides inexpensive communication as well as vast amounts of knowledge and real-time information. Eventually, the Web will aid education efforts in developing communities and help lift them out of poverty – or so the thinking goes. Government institutions in developing nations already present themselves on the Web, and their middle-class city-dwellers increasingly have access. Even in smaller towns, Internet cafes are springing up. Yet Web access stops short of reaching millions of people in villages and remote towns – arguably the places where it could have its biggest impact.

Experts call this failure the "last mile problem." Rough terrain such as mountains or rain forests makes construction of a wired network in many far-flung places a prohibitively expensive option.

As a result, schools and community centers in many remote villages cannot hook up to the Web, even if Internet connections are available in nearby towns. Given the lack of reliable electricity in many developing regions, the prospect of wireless networks also did not seem a viable alternative – until now.


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