The digital divide exists even within so-called “developed” countries, as a result of inner city poverty and rural isolation. The flooding of New Orleans exposed social divisions that exist in what’s considered the world’s only superpower. Governments could level the playing field by providing wireless broadband, either through mesh networks or WiMAX technology (once standards have been ratified). But government support and funding, as well as strong partnerships with industry, are needed to get these initiatives off the ground. In both developed and developing regions, broadband access benefits municipalities or rural areas where fibre optic networks aren’t an option, by providing connectivity to homes, schools and hospitals. Installation is cheaper when you don’t have to lay cable and string wires everywhere.
Down the road, WiMAX technology, which will provide wireless voice and data access across metropolitan areas, could make this easier. But today, mesh networks are a viable alternative to wired networks.
Instead of relying on cable, mesh networks share connections from node to node (and only use one or two physical connections to the Internet). As a result, they’re cheaper and less complicated than traditional wireless networks.
The City of Taipei, Taiwan is rolling out a mesh network that will eventually provide broadband access to the entire city through mesh antennas on street lamps and buildings. The city claims that by the end of this year, it will be able to provide coverage to 90 per cent of the city’s population of 2.65 million people through 10,000 wireless access points. Taiwan’s National Policy Agency (NPA) is building an “advanced communications infrastructure” using wireless mesh, optical transport and multimedia communications from Nortel. This is expected to improve the NPA’s inspection, protection and forensic technology for the island’s 22 million citizens.
The Chinese government plans to use mesh networking for 5,000 information kiosks during the 2008 Olympic Games. Capinfo Company Ltd., a Chinese company primarily owned by the Beijing government, is using Motorola’s MeshNetworks to link the kiosks, which will be located on street corners, in shops and in government buildings.
Adaptic Inc., a Seattle-based company, is working with government organizations in Beijing (including Beijing Airway Communications Co. Ltd., Beijing University of Post & Telecom and Beijing ShiJinShan District Government) to build a broadband wireless demonstration network — the first pre-WiMAX network in China.
The demo network will support research and development, networking, Web-based training, e-commerce and business management. And it will provide wireless broadband access for the ShiJinShan District.
Unlike Wi-Fi hotspots, WiMAX is capable of covering large areas. And it’s a cheaper alternative to DSL and cable. According to Intel, which is helping to develop the technology, WiMAX offers a practical way to extend service to many different parts of developing countries. WiMAX is being explored in Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America as an option for access, once standards are ratified. Even here at home, new technologies are being explored as a way to link rural communities. The Province of Ontario is rolling out a wireless broadband network that will provide coverage to 115 rural communities spread out over 50,000 square kilometres in Northern Ontario. This will include Nipissing, Parry Sound and Sudbury —areas that currently have limited access to broadband.
Standards must be ratified and technologies must mature, but it’s a sign of hope for levelling a playing field that has been uneven far too long.

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