Unwiring the World
By Alex Pentland, Academic Head, MIT Media Laboratory, Tue Aug 14 00:00:00 GMT 2001

Turning the Digital Divide into a Digital Dividend

Wireless Internet communications will move the digital revolution from office desktops to the rest of our lives, and to the rest of the world. In the developed world this will mean increased health, safety, and greater efficiency, hopefully without more 'information overload'. However the most important consequence may be the provision of wireless Internet services to the rural poor in developing nations. Unlike today's wired technology, the coming generation of wireless Internet communication will level the differences between rich and poor, because it works as well in remote regions as in modern cities, and is cheap enough to spread everywhere.

For the first time your location no longer limits your ability to communicate. From anywhere in the world - mountain, jungle, or city - you can now telephone, email, and browse the Web using a pocket-sized, battery-powered wireless Communicator whose components cost only a few dozen dollars. As a result, the next generation of Internet technology will be wireless, allowing small devices on your body to be connected to the rest of the world. In the developed world this means that personal services, like monitoring your health, giving directions to your next meeting, and helping you find things while shopping, will become pervasive. We are already seeing some of this with so-called Smartphones and wirelessly connected Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs).

But the biggest changes caused by this wireless Internet technology may well be in the developing world, and particularly the rural developing world. Why? Because for less than the cost of a typical International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout we could unwire the world, making available first-class educational material, medical advice, business communications, and the arts to every family on earth, using this new generation of wireless Internet communications technology.

Unwiring the world could have a huge impact, because it directly addresses the problems of health, educational, economic, and cultural opportunity. The most certain method of enhancing people's well-being and cutting pollution has always been to increase educational opportunity. The most certain method of promoting peace and prosperity has always been to increase economic and cultural participation. Moreover, unwired - unlike wired technology - tends to level differences between rich and poor, because it works as well in remote regions as in modern cities, and is cheap enough to be spread everywhere.

The Rules Have Changed

When we think of how developing countries can improve their situations, we implicitly make certain assumptions about how the world works. For instance, most of us unconsciously assume that distance makes communication more difficult, that jobs require going to an office or factory, and that sophisticated technology is expensive. When we compare life in a remote mountain village and life in downtown New York, it seems self-evident that the urban resident will find it easier to obtain Internet, fax, and telephone services, sophisticated medical tests, and electronic commerce opportunities. After all, the ability to obtain world-class services and opportunity is why people put up with the stress and expense associated with urban centers.

But these seemingly eternal truths about city versus village are quickly eroding. Using digital satellite links and local wireless Internet, it can now be cheaper to have first-class communications in the rural village than in Manhattan. Similarly, the tools of digital life - the computer, the videoconference, the cell phone - which used to require special rooms and expensive support, are now collapsing into tiny devices that are cheap enough to be carried in the pockets of schoolchildren.

Unwired Browsers

To understand the enormity of wireless digital communicators selling at prices comparable to those of books, consider these same devices in the context of a poor village in a developing nation. For the cost of under $100 per family one could provide thousands of books, maps, and drawings, along with music and news clips, medical and agricultural information, and digital community "billboards" for organizing cooperative buying or selling. If we further add a communications link to the outside world, then we can also provide digital postal and banking services, and even e-commerce opportunities. For most of the two billion people in developing nations where yearly family income is over $2500, it would makes tremendous sense to invest $100 to have access to a world-class collection of literature, music, and technical information, to say nothing of having access to accurate, current market and sociopolitical information.

Personal Telemedicine

Medical monitoring and diagnosis is also being turned on its head. Once the domain of experts in grand hospitals, sophisticated biomedical sensors are now being packaged as consumer home health aids. Researchers have already designed silicon computer chips that contain small, biologically active sites. When a chemical binds to one of these sites it changes the electrical properties of the surrounding computer chip, allowing the binding event to be electrically detected and read by the same computer chip. Hundreds or even thousands of biologically active sites can be placed on a single chip, making possible an astonishingly complete readout of a person's health from a single drop of blood, saliva, or urine. The combination of inexpensive VLSI techniques (very large-scale integration -placing thousands of electronic components on a single chip) for chip making and wireless technology has the potential to provide first-class medical advice and diagnosis anywhere on earth.

Digital Jobs

Perhaps the most important effect of the Internet has been the rise of electronic commerce, and not just businesses selling products on the Web, but the ability to provide business services. Besides increases in efficiency and consumer choice, the rise of ecommerce means that people in remote locations can now participate as equals in the global economy. The work comes to them via digital communication channels, and they can provide less expensive services because of their lower costs.

Workers in Bangalore, India, have famously taken this opportunity to become a leading force in writing computer software. Similar success stories exist in the accounting industry, and in areas like medical information services. However such a high-value-added service businesses requires having a work population with a world-class education, something that is in generally short supply. Fortunately the greater economic opportunity (as measured in dollars) seems to be in so-called back room business services, such as clerical work, typing, transcription, and document quality control. Already monks in monasteries, residents of remote islands, and people in sparsely populated regions are finding employment as providers of these teleservices.

The fear for rural areas providing teleservices is, of course, that they could turn into a sort of "digital sweatshop." Unlike soccer ball making or other sweatshop industries, however, digital services seem to provide a natural path for self-improvement. This is because the infrastructure for a low-value-added teleservice like typing is essentially the same as that for a high-value-added teleservice like accounting or medical transcription. Once that infrastructure is in place, the incentive for increasing worker's skills to provide a higher-value service has typically become immediately apparent to everyone.

A Practical Plan: The Little Intelligent Communities Project

The LINCOS (little intelligent communities) Project has the goal of deploying these new technologies worldwide, in the form of a "Community Center for the 21st Century." The physical design of these centers is an elegant tension structure surrounding a modified shipping container. The container has a digital satellite link and integrated local wireless telephone connection, analytical laboratories, telemedicine services, a computer lab, electronic commerce and banking services, and a multi-purpose information center.

Designed to be built inexpensively in the developing countries themselves, it provides sophisticated local digital communications, and supports a wide range of applications in education, health, agriculture, and entertainment. It stimulates community grass roots activity around its services, and hopes to become a true "community center".

One critical issue is integration of the center with community life. To address this issue, we have decided that the center should at first provide only the most familiar, basic services: telephone, entertainment, postal service, and basic educational and medical services. Although capacity to handle all sorts of advanced applications must be incorporated in the center as of its deployment, only these familiar basic services will be provided at the beginning. As people grow their uses and habits, and as the community organizes itself around the center, other applications will be brought online.

A second critical issue is that there must be "buy-in" on the part of local leadership. The center must be seen as something that enhances opportunities in the community, and provides value-added opportunities for those people already working in health, education, and communications. It must not be seen as a threat. To begin to address this problem we have developed a series of ethnographic survey techniques that attempt to qualify communities, identify their needs, and enlist local champions.

Deployment of the first of these cigital town centers has already happened in Central America and the Caribbean, and is underway in Africa, Southeast Asia, and India. So far, community response to the centers has been overwhelmingly positive. To learn more about the LINCOS project, see http://www.lincos.net.


The Internet is going wireless, and wireless technology tends to favor rural, developing nations over urban, developed nations. Just as cellular phones were adopted more quickly in Malaysia than the US, the new generation of wireless Internet devices may well penetrate developing nations faster than nations that have already invested billions of dollars in wired infrastructure.

The LINCOS project hopes to capitalize on these trends, by packaging health, education, information, and communication services together so that they can share overhead costs between them and so that necessary expenditures (like health) can be cross-subsidized by income-producing activities. The goal is to allow rural communities in developing nations to have the access to world-class services and opportunities while maintaining their economic and cultural independence.

Alex (Sandy) Pentland is the academic head of the M.I.T. Media Laboratory and co-Founder of the LINCOS Foundation. He one of the 50 most-cited authors in computer science, won numerous academic awards, and was selected by Newsweek Magazine as one of the 100 Americans most likely to shape the next century. His web site is at http://www.media.mit.edu/~pentland