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Send  Share  RSS  Twitter  29 Nov 2010

TECHNOLOGY: Bridging Digital Divide In Rural Areas


Recent Western Cape Business News

A Durbanville-based designed and manufactured solution for people who have no access to internet services received international recognition when it was shortlisted for an AfricaCom Award for best solution for rural services. The award recognises an initiative which has significantly improved access to telecommunications in a rural area in Africa during the past year. 

The Content Company entered their product, Streetwise, an internet terminal that gives users in rural and underserviced areas access to internet content and e-mail without the complications normally associated with using modern computers in these areas.

The Streetwise technology was developed over a period of two and a half years. Early customer acceptance trials in South Africa and Uganda prompted some significant redesign and the terminals were ready for manufacturing during late 2009. The first terminals were deployed commercially in March 2010.

Streetwise is essentially a GPRS-based email and information terminal which provides text based services and content such as e-mail, internet search to trusted sites like Wikipedia and The South African Encyclopedia, currents news reports, a document writer for projects, letters and CVs, educational worksheets and educational games.

Poor data connection remains the biggest challenge in developing a solution for the underserviced areas as traditional broadband connections like 3G and ADSL are generally not present in the areas where the need for connectivity is the greatest. That is why The Content Company designed a product which is able to operate on the lowest quality data network that is present everywhere, which is GPRS on the GSM networks.

To allow the system to operate well enough on this quality of data connection to provide a satisfactory user experience, they created the concept of ‘lean content’ which is low bandwidth intensive content that delivers the information asked for, primarily in text format.

 “Streetwise does not require broadband, good access to power, decent infrastructure nor significant technical support to work and keep working. The devices have been designed to operate under the worst of conditions and because they communicate via GPRS, they work everywhere”, said Ian Harrison, CEO of The Content Company. 

According to Harrison there is an estimated 18 000 schools in South Africa alone that do not have internet connectivity. “Our objective is to provide a stepping stone technology solution for these schools so children can have access to up to date, safe and useful information whilst at the same time being exposed in a controlled manner to the virtual world of the internet and services such as e-mail.”

The Streetwise solution was designed so that a unit can be used by itself or together with four extension terminals. The system is completely mobile and is deployed in a shoulder bag that carries a single set of five terminals for use by five users sharing a single GPRS connection.  This deployment means that it can very easily be scaled to suit a school environment and to date between five and thirty Streetwise terminals have been deployed in schools at a time.

That Streetwise is a user-friendly and valuable research and communication tool is evident from the usage statistics. Since March this year for example, close to 30 000 Wikipedia searches were done using just 150 Streetwise units distributed to five schools across South Africa thanks to a sponsorship by Nashua Mobile.

Now The Content Company hopes to attract more sponsors like this to help bring a wealth of online information within the reach of thousands more children across South Africa.

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