Wi-Fi could let Iraq skip steps to leap into broadband Rebuilding nation offers chance to put wireless technology to work Copyright 2003 Gannett Company Inc. USA TODAY April 17, 2003, Thursday FIRST EDITION SAN FRANCISCO -- When Iraq is rebuilt, an emerging wireless Internet technology may let it avoid the broadband woes that have plagued the USA for years. Wi-Fi, a young technology backed by the likes of Intel and Microsoft, sends Web pages and phone calls via radio waves. That avoids the expense of cables, which has partly held up the spread of broadband, or high-speed Internet, service in the USA. By using Wi-Fi, parts of Iraq could skip the build-out of traditional phone and cable networks altogether. The situation is similar to how cellphone technology enabled huge swaths of the Third World to avoid regular land-line phone systems. Wi-Fi equipment makers such as Cisco Systems, Proxim and Nomadix are talking to government agencies and non-profits about possibilities for Wi-Fi in Iraq. Humanitarian groups evaluating it include Oxfam International and CARE. Wi-Fi could "lower our overhead and increase our capability to do our jobs," says Bob MacPherson, a director with CARE. A high-profile role in Iraq would give an added boost to Wi-Fi, already taking off in other parts of the world. Research firm Gartner expects there to be more than 24,000 public Wi-Fi access points worldwide by year's end. An access point is where users can go to get on a network. Starbucks, for example, is installing Wi-Fi networks in many of its stores. While contracts to rebuild Iraq's telecom networks are still being discussed, Wi-Fi has already been proved in remote places such as: ? Bhutan. Wi-Fi connects two villages, one high in the mountains, one in the flatlands. Bhutan's phone company sponsored the system to bring inexpensive phone service to the villages. It enables Internet service, too. "We were checking our e-mail from little shacks way out in the boonies with no power," says Clif Cox, a Eugene, Ore., Wi-Fi enthusiast who worked on the project. ? Mount Everest. Yaks carried Wi-Fi gear to the Mount Everest base camp at 17,000 feet, where a cybercafe opened this month. Climbers and support teams use it for e-mail and phone calls. ? Indonesia. Several companies are installing Wi-Fi kiosks in villages on remote islands. India and Ireland, too, are testing Wi-Fi for rural areas. ? Native American reservations. Eighteen reservations in California's San Diego County use Wi-Fi and related technologies to bring fast Internet access to schools and police stations. The programs are sponsored by the University of California at San Diego and Hewlett-Packard. Wi-Fi is also being evaluated by the U.S. military. However, security is an issue. Also, signals can interfere with one another or other electronic devices. And obstacles such as trees or buildings can block Wi-Fi signals.