VoIP Helps The Needy

If you think VoIP has had quite a run in the past few years and it is time for the phenomenon to wind down, think again. The biggest barrier to communicating via Skype, for example, is the cost of a computer. Once you have one connected to the Internet, PC to PC calling is free.

While VoIP is hot among students, it is generally students in developed parts of the world that are able to take advantage of it. Remember that if you don’t have electricity, a PC or broadband, you don’t have VoIP. Yes, I know you can have a good quality conversation over dial-up, but I won’t explore this concept in this particular piece.

Even if you have access to electricity and the Internet ,you still need a computer. If you are a student, you would probably want a laptop so you can use it in class and take it to wherever it is you study.

The barrier for children in developing countries to happen upon a laptop, electricity and Internet access all at once is pretty high. Generally food and medicine trump computing power.

Yes, it seems that even Moore’s Law really doesn’t do much in developing countries. An entry level laptop, according to Dell’s website, is around $500 not including shipping. In many parts of the world this is too much money for a child/family to afford.

But imagine if there was a way to get computers into the hands of more children. What would this do for the world’s developing nations and how would it help children? Imagine they would now be able to compute inexpensively and have access to the Internet and also speak for free with others.

This is a huge deal because in many parts of the world there aren’t telephones or even telephone lines. Many children don’t even understand the concept of the telephone. What if we could get them to access the web, allow them to compose documents, blog and talk for free? What an amazing world that would be. What an exciting place to live. What a more interconnected planet we would live on.

Indeed, this dream-world of mine may be created soon if a new initiative at MIT becomes successful. The goal of MIT researchers is to build $100 laptops and perhaps just as importantly, these laptops will not require electricity as they can be powered by winding. You may think this is a ridiculous concept, but it really isn’t. Using current technology a minute of winding gets you ten minutes of computing time. Furthermore we should embrace winding, as the way gas prices are going it is only a matter of time before we start winding our cars.

The laptop will be very durable, the color screen will shift to black and white for viewing in bright sunlight and the color of the laptops will be so distinctive that there will be a stigma to carrying one if you aren’t a student or teacher. This latter idea is meant to prevent theft of the devices.

The bargain-priced laptops will not only be used in third-world countries, but it is possible that 500,000 of them will be purchased for all high school and middle school students in Massachusetts. This could be the first state among many that decide to give these devices to all their students.

Each laptop will be equipped with WiFi and can form a mesh network allowing an ad-hoc network to be put together where laptops act as access points for other laptops. In theory, tremendous distances can be covered with broadband access with enough of these computers in close proximity.

This initiative is very noble and immediately reminded me of what the people at Inveneo are doing by enabling NGOs (non-governmental organizations) operating in remote areas, and the people they serve in developing countries to communicate with one another using VoIP and wireless networks. Inveneo produces a solar and bicycle-powered VoIP system. I most recently saw it working with a solar panel. People in villages that don’t have electricity or phone lines will use the systems to communicate with neighboring villages and the rest of the world.

Of course, the law of unintended consequences is always in play it seems, as the people at Inveneo have found their solution is extremely useful in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. So a technology that was originally developed to allow the under-served people in developing countries to communicate more effectively has morphed into an ideal way for people to communicate once essential telecommunications infrastructure has been destroyed.

In a recent article I mentioned that company executives feel we need to focus on emergency preparedness in communications networks. At the upcoming Internet Telephony Conference & Expo later this month in Los Angeles, California, the company will be hosting a press conference titled Communications Continuity Planning. The hope of the conference will be to discuss ways we can ensure effective communications in the wake of disaster.

Both the MIT-inspired laptop and the Inveneo solar- and bicycle-powered communications system were originally designed for use by the under-served people, and aid/medical/education organizations operating in remote areas. Both are aimed at helping the citizens of the world communicate more effectively. Interestingly, laptops enabled with mesh networking technology too will be infinitely useful in disaster scenarios where there may be no more effective way to communicate over long distances.

I have mentioned before I am proud to be involved in the VoIP industry as we are giving back to the world. We are helping the underprivileged. We are allowing those who could not communicate before to now speak with one another. The advent of inexpensive laptops means that VoIP will be used by potentially millions more people that could have never afforded to use a phone. VoIP not only is a wonderful productivity booster for corporations and a cost saver for consumers, it is now the definitive technology allowing the less fortunate throughout our world to be able to communicate like the rest of us. It is once again a proud day for those involved in the VoIP industry and I salute those selfless people devoting their time and energy to help others.

  • Al Bredenberg VoIP & CRM Blog
    October 3, 2005 at 4:48 pm

    VoIP for the Developing World

    Rich Tehrani wrote a fascinating blog entry today about the potential connection between MIT’s $100-laptop program and the future possibilities for VoIP in developing countries. See his essay at:VoIP Helps the NeedyIn part, Rich writes:" … imagi…

  • VoIP Blog - Rich Tehrani
    October 3, 2005 at 5:09 pm

    The Hole In The Wall

    Al Bredenberg wrote a nice piece on my blog entry discussing VoIP in developing parts of the world. I think what Al wrote is excellent and I wasn’t aware of Sugata Mitra in India and his famous Hole In The…

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