I have been fairly skeptical of the One Laptop Per Child project, not because it’s not a worthy cause, but because it doesn’t factor in the harsh realities of the daily lives of those who Nicholas Negroponte & Co. plan to uplift. Where food, water and […]

I have been fairly skeptical of the One Laptop Per Child project, not because it’s not a worthy cause, but because it doesn’t factor in the harsh realities of the daily lives of those who Nicholas Negroponte & Co. plan to uplift.

olpc.gifWhere food, water and shelter are largely unmet needs, it is my belief that a laptop is not a road to salvation. Looks like I might be wrong. Apparently kids love it, as per Brazilian Culture Minister Gilberto Gil’s speech at the Emerging Technologies (EmTech) Conference at MIT, where he talked about the magnificence of the laptop project and its deep impact on children.

Nevertheless, his country isn’t ready to order the devices just yet. Why? Because they don’t have the network infrastructure.

We can’t just distribute computers. We have to build a backbone. Just making the technology accessible is not enough. Technology leads to language, to spiritual dimensions. It’s the whole process that matters. It’s not just one item, computers are not enough.

Like putting the cart before the horse. In fact, the lack of networks is a problem that extends beyond Brazil; India and other emerging economies are trying to build network infrastructures as well.

The good news is that OLPC is going to prompt network makers to think creatively about it, and come up with ways to build networks very, very cheaply. John Roese, chief technology office of Nortel (NT), wrote on his blog about OLPC and the concept of hyperconnectivity.

While OLPC is not a Nortel product, it is a tool to stimulate the R&D teams to consider new communication models of hyper connectivity, new programming models and new collaboration methods. It also represents a new type of client, as well as new economic and networking models that are possibly a reflection of the future nature of broadband networking.

Well, let’s hope Roese is right. Leaving my skepticism aside for a moment, I wonder what the impact of a successful OLPC program might have on the network. Thoughts?

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  1. The OLPC is already fostering innovation in the network infrastructure business. Just look at Green Wifi (http://www.green-wifi.org/index.html) which provides a solar-powered WiFi grid device that can be deployed in remote areas. OLPC seed-funded Green Wifi as it can address the network connectivity issue head on.

  2. yes, sean, but to feed the wifi you still need the backhaul networks which are missing in most places. it is going to be slow process.

  3. Sean,

    Exactly! Om, we have just demonstrated that the business model for MuniMesh networks does not work in Developed nations, but maybe the real use of MuniMesh is in underdeveloped countries. I hope that you will take the opportunity to talk to the folks over at GreenWifi and Meraki to guage their thoughts on this.


  4. Om — have to disagree with you philosophically on OLPC’s role vis a vis children’s basic needs. Yes those needs are important and hopefully governments worldwide take this seriously. (I include the US but unforunately as you know even this country has serious problems taking care of children livin in poverty.) But the philosphical issue with OLPC is that children wolrdwide have the right and the need to have a basic education, and technology plays a critical role in today’s educational system. Why should we deny this to kids just because we are still trying to figure out how to meet basic needs. If governments stop thinking of this as a “zero sum” game — that buying laptops means fewer resources to go around to pay for food, healthcase etc — and instead view OLPC as an important contributor towards a long-term poverty alleviation strategy — then I think we’ll witness a shift in mindset that will do wonders for kids worldwide.

    But that’s the blue-sky idealist in me. :-)

  5. Concepts of universal access to education and medicine will prove (in some ways) to be a catalyst for greater backhaul growth in places like Brazil (was just there last week.) I don’t buy the OLPC vs. food and water dichotomy. We have to remember that the global poor are not one monolithic population, but are divided into smaller and more complex segments. There are global poor who have nothing more than a piece of cardboard to sleep on, for them, I admit, OLPC is useless. But there are those who eek out a subsistence-level existence (i.e., they have food and water, albeit in meager quantities), but who’s lot in life could be improved through education and greater access to tools of economic growth, like cell phones and OLPC. Funny how few people mock the cell phone industry for selling (successfully) to poor people globally. Our economic well-being could not be sustained or expanded without tools of technology. I don’t understand how expect other countries to expand their economies without similar tools.

  6. what about leveraging gsm and using a s60 mobile? Or similar devices based on linux?

  7. Antoine of MMM/Brighthand Friday, September 28, 2007

    Why not ditch the idea of something backend at all, and allow each mobile device (phone, smartphone, laptop, etc.) be a node that is essentially a connector that creates a network. While I am pretty sure that I am oversimplifying things, what if two computers sitting near each other played like a magnet and attracted one another and then “became a network.” Others in the area could see that network, and with one device playing host, be accepted into it (with the idea of host probably being shared between the first two who connected so that if one leaves, the network doesn’t).

    I do agree that just giving the laptops isn’t enough. You have to think of the process of learning, working, educating. Those who are giving these tools need to also understand the ethical lessons that need to be adapted per culture with this. It is opportunity yes, but just giving the cart and no training how to fix a broken wheel or what roads carts are allowed is just as bad as putting the cart before the horse.

  8. If you’re interested in technology in emerging economies, talk to this guy.


    At Freedom to Connect in 2005, he noted that although the hardware is relatively expensive in emerging economies, labor can be extremely cheap, making, say, fiber, more economical than it might be elsewhere.

    Although a national fiber infrastructure would be inappropriate for Brazil, a coastal fiber line supplemented by a powerful wireless backbone could work.

    And the fiber would have to serve the favelas as well as the high rises.

  9. Mark Pesce just did a keynote at Web Directions in Sydney ,Australia on how the Mobile Phone will be the savior of the poor people .


  10. Hi Om:
    I work as a PR volunteer for OLPC. The concerns you raised about food, water and housing are ones the project hears a lot. OLPC, of course, believes basic necessities are crucial to developing countries.

    However, you’re making the mistake of many people when you focus on the laptop as a “gadget” The project isn’t about hardware and software, its about education. You might not believe a laptop is the road to salvation, but certainly you must believe education is. OLPC proceeds from the basic assumption that education is the root of solving all problems.

    You can find more information about OLPC’s mission here:


    Thanks for the interest.

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