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Read more stories from this February 2001 issue

Unwiring the World

Small, intelligent communities are working to combat the digital divide.

by Bonnie Schwartz
photographs by Wyatt McSpadden
from FC issue 43, page 48

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How do you provide access to hard-core 21st-century technology in a remote Central American jungle? A project called ''Unwiring the World'' has hit upon an elegantly simple solution. Founded in 1998 by Alex "Sandy" Pentland, academic head of the MIT Media Lab, and Jose Maria Figueres, former president of Costa Rica, Unwiring the World is creating portable digital town centers: recycled shipping containers furnished with telemedicine units, cash machines, micro computer schools, soil-and-environment testing labs, FM radio stations, wireless satellite links, and big-screen TVs. Seven of the units, dubbed LINCOS, or little intelligent communities, have been installed in off-the-grid areas in Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic, where they are being used by residents to help form agricultural cooperatives, launch e-commerce initiatives, and access education and employment information online. Pentland says that 55 more are under way.

Sold at any large port, the 20' x 8' x 8' steel containers are decommissioned when they can no longer meet shipping-industry strength requirements. Cost: under $1,000 per box. A protective tent is erected at each installation site to provide usable outdoor space and ventilation around the boxes. "It's as simple a construct as you're going to find," Pentland says. "And the hardware and materials cost about $25,000."

Appreciating the economic possibilities of such a venture, the International Development Bank is considering funding 30 more LINCOS throughout Costa Rica over the next year. And by the end of 2002, "there could be hundreds," says Pentland, who, along with fellow MIT Media Lab professor Mitchel Resnick and a group from Harvard's Center for International Development, recently formed a new initiative to combat the digital divide called Digital Nations. Says Pentland: "Philanthropy does dribs and drabs. You have to find something that works more like a franchise to make it sustainable."

Bonnie Schwartz ( bonnie9878@aol.com ) is a freelance writer based in New York. Contact Sandy Pentland by email ( sandy@media.mit.edu ).

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