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Calling All Villages

Telecom

For many people in rural areas of the developing world, just making a phone call from home is a distant dream. That’s because building conventional phone infrastructure costs around $1,000 per home; to break even, companies would have to charge an amount out of reach for most would-be customers. But a new wireless telecommunications technology called corDECT could change that, potentially bringing millions of people not only phone access but the Internet as well.

Developed jointly by the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras and Midas Communication Technologies in Chennai, India, the new system is cheap and easy to install, as it replaces expensive cabling with wireless base stations (below), each serving 30 to 100 subscribers in a neighborhood. An answering-machine-sized box in each user’s home has ports for a phone and a computer. The system allows the phone and computer to share bandwidth: if a call comes in while somebody is surfing the Web, the Internet connection speed simply slows. The cost: $200 per home.

That price tag has prompted widespread interest in corDECT and pilot implementations of the technology in 11 countries, including Madagascar, Fiji, Kenya, Brazil and India. Harvard University’s Center for International Development, together with the MIT Media Lab’s Digital Nations consortium, chose corDECT for its project to connect communities in southeastern India. Says Colin Maclay, deputy director of the Harvard center, “We went with corDECT because it was cheap, robust and could scale up easily to a thousand villages.” For the more than 95 percent of India’s billion inhabitants who currently can’t afford a phone, that scalability could mean a whole new connection to the world.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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