In Bangladesh, where less than 1 percent of the population has Internet access and where the rare broadband connection is prohibitively expensive, bridging the digital divide may require new approaches.
A group of Bangladeshi expatriates think they have found one that could work - a plan to bring affordable Internet access to their homeland through a blend of high-end wireless technology and social entrepreneurship.
The service, a joint venture between several Bangladeshi-born U.S. citizens and an Internet company based in Oregon, couples paid service for consumers and businesses with free access for schools, and employs a seldom-deployed wireless system.
"We are unique in terms of our vision," said Reaz Shaheed, chief executive of the venture, AlwaysOn Network Bangladesh. "We are not interested only in profit. We also have a social agenda."
Shaheed said providing free Internet access for schools was more than a gesture. By getting students online, and keeping them there, he hopes to build demand, which will pay off later. "We think it's a good investment," he said. "We don't see them as freeloaders."
For most people in Bangladesh, Internet access is anything but free. A slow 10 to 15 kbps, or kilobits per second, connection costs about $15 a month. Faster services command a hefty premium. A 64 kbps connection is about $65 a month, and a one megabit per second, or mbps, broadband connection is about $600.
Shaheed says that his rates will vary, but he says that he will be able to offer a 64 kbps connection for as little as $15.
While Shaheed talks gladly of a social purpose, he said the offer of free access for schools was not the reason why AlwaysOn won its license to provide the service. "What motivated the government," he said, was that "we were willing to cover the whole country and provide Internet to the rural areas."
To do that, Shaheed turned to a technology developed by SOMA Networks, based in San Francisco. It has been adopted by AlwaysOn Network, based in Portland, Oregon, which delivers high-speed wireless Internet access to rural areas of Oregon. AlwaysOn Network owns about 25 percent of the Bangladeshi venture, with 10 Bangladeshi nationals owning the rest.
Shaheed, a Bangladeshi-born engineer who worked for 23 years at Intel, says that the SOMA technology was particularly suited to Bangladesh's conditions: heavy monsoon rains, winter fog and densely packed urban areas. It is also easy to set up: Subscribers either install a unit in their home or on an outside wall for those buildings far from a base station, said Frank Petkovich, senior director of corporate strategy at SOMA.
The Bangladeshi service is based on a cellular phone technology called W-CDMA, or Wideband Code Division Multiple Access. The technology allows a broadband link to be achieved up to 15 kilometers, or about 9 miles, from a base station, Shaheed said.
Shaheed said a test run among about 100 subscribers in parts of the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, was successful enough to convince him to quit his job at Intel, which he did recently. By the end of this year he hopes to cover metropolitan Dhaka as well as surrounding schools. Within a few years, he said, he hopes to have the whole country covered.
Most of the existing Internet connections for Bangladeshis are via GPRS, or General Packet Radio Service, a wireless standard for mobile data transmission that is being replaced elsewhere by faster technologies.
SOMA Networks says that business models blending technological and commercial arguments with a social purpose will proliferate as policy makers around the world aim to connect more people to modern communications networks.
"What we see globally is governments putting together significant funds to bring Internet access to places that don't have it," said Tom Flak, senior vice president of operations at SOMA. "It's becoming more of a social mandate now, and broadband is considered less of a luxury today than a necessity."
6 months ago