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Rolling Hotspots Take Villages Online
Asher Moses

Those living in developing countries might struggle to access food, clean water and medicine, but checking their email and shopping on eBay are a piece of cake, thanks to a US company and its fleet of wi-fi equipped buses.

Like a traditional postal service, the buses bridge the divide between isolated villages and internet connections in the city, physically transporting web content such as news, emails and e-commerce orders between them.

Amir Hasson, CEO of the company, United Villages, says his technology brings internet access to about 110,000 people living in rural areas of India, Cambodia, Rwanda, Costa Rica and Paraguay.

The 30-year-old American said he was looking to expand into China, Nigeria and even remote areas of Australia, provided he could find local partners to work with.

The biggest network United Villages operates is in India, where it is registered as an official internet service provider and brings access to about 25 villages.

In the other countries, organisations such as the non-profit American Assistance for Cambodia buy Hasson's hardware and software to use as the basis for their own networks.

But while United Villages is a for-profit company, Hasson's goals are decidedly altruistic.

"Our mission is to provide 2 billion villagers with a digital identity, which includes an email address, a phone number and a stored value card - basically, the beginning of a bank account, a debit card," he said in a telephone interview today.

The first step along that road is to continue expanding the Indian network, which is simple yet surprisingly efficient.

Computer kiosks set up in each village are used to compose emails, conduct web searches, read the news, access voicemail, buy products from online stores, send SMS and even log in to internet dating sites.

But messages and web pages are not served to the user in real time, as the level of investment required to lay cables for an onsite internet connection would be unjustifiable.

Instead, two Wi-Fi equipped buses visit the remote villages about four to six times a day each, automatically collecting requests from the computers and physically transporting the data to United Villages' hub in the city where the internet connection is located.

The city hub then sends the messages out, processes searches and transfers any requested data back to the bus, which delivers it to the village.

"Once we have a critical mass of those kiosk operators on a route, we go to the bus owners and we negotiate a deal with them to put our mobile access point on their bus, which is already going back and forward to the village anyway," Hasson said.

He did not believe the lack of a real-time connection - which would allow for applications such as internet chat rooms - was a significant deterrent for the target market.

"What we've found is if you had only one computer for the whole village, real-time communications don't make as much sense because 98 per cent of the time the person you want to talk to is not at the computer - Rajeev is out in the field planting."

Even so, Hasson said the delay in transporting data to and from the city could often be avoided.

"We are in advance pushing content out to the kiosk that we know they are going to want," he said, using examples such as local news, cricket scores, job opportunities and information on agriculture and Bollywood movies.

Mindful that those living in rural areas tend not to be computer savvy, United Villages also offers a range of "infopacks" that bundle together websites dealing with a range of niche topics.

Users pay for the service through prepaid cards, which they can buy from the kiosk in their village. SMS and email messages cost about one rupee (less than three Australian cents) each.

Kiosk operators are recruited directly from the villages, and take a 30 per cent cut of the prepaid card sales.

Hasson said he was investigating moving to an advertiser-driven model in the future.

But while United Villages is now a solid commercial venture, it began, like many innovative technology companies, as a 2001 class project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

"We were in a class called 'Developmental Entrepreneurship' and we were asked to come up with a business plan for a new technology that fundamentally impacted [on] the developing world, but in a commercially viable way," Hasson said.

"We didn't have any better ideas so we went with that one."

Hasson graduated from his MBA program in 2002, before moving to India to "incubate the technology" under MIT.

The project morphed from being a research project into a commercial venture in June 2003, and by September that year United Villages' technology was already servicing 17 communities in Cambodia.

Today, the company continues to expand into new countries and Hasson even has his sights set on Australia.

"We believe that humans have a fundamental right to communicate and to information, but we also believe at the same time that the economics have to work for the providers ... otherwise it's not sustainable, it's not scaleable, it's not going to make an impact," he said.