Wireless called key to global development

Speakers at a conference on using technology to solve social and economic problems stressed that wireless communications can play a critical role in improving the lives of people living in poverty.

Ed Frauenheim
Ed Frauenheim Former Staff Writer, News
Ed Frauenheim covers employment trends, specializing in outsourcing, training and pay issues.
2 min read
BERKELEY, Calif.--The bridge across the global digital divide is likely to be a wireless one.

At a conference here on using technology to solve social and economic problems in developing nations, a number of speakers emphasized the role of wireless communications.

A. Richard Newton, dean of the College of Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, said the most important technological step to take in developing countries is to build out communications networks with wireless capabilities.

He said it is conceivable to put solar-powered antennae towers that support voice and data communications in villages for about $750 apiece. Newton also proposed a mobile phone with a much simpler interface, one he claimed was economically feasible. The phone would display images of people who called, so a user reviewing voice mail could press on the image of the person whose message he wanted to hear. "I can build that phone for less than $5 today," he said.

Newton was among the many scholars, public officials and business leaders participating in the "Bridging the Divide" conference organized by UC Berkeley's Management of Technology Program along with the United Nations Industrial Development Organization. The three-day event, held at the university's Haas School of Business, examined topics including health care technology, building environmentally sustainable industry, and technology essentials for economic development.

Maggie Wilderotter, Microsoft's senior vice president in charge of the public sector worldwide, began a keynote speech Friday by painting a picture of a starkly divided world. She said 2.5 billion of the world's 6 billion people live on less than $1 a day. She also highlighted the importance of education. "What good is a laptop with broadband access if you can't read or write?" she asked.

Still, technology can play a vital role in helping people's well-being, she argued. Microsoft has a number of projects around the world designed to increase technology access, with wireless as one focus. In Africa, Wilderotter said, Microsoft is helping nomadic people stay connected via satellite. "The school computer lab actually moves with them," she said.

With many high-tech jobs moving from the United States to lower-wage countries such as India and China, some observers call for more attention to workers and technology at home. But concerns about "offshoring" should not mean ignoring the plight of the world's poor, suggested John Gage, chief researcher at Sun Microsystems. It's a question of "who is 'us'--we are all 'us,'" Gage said. "It's just part of being a citizen of the world."