Wireless Internet technology may help poor nations leapfrog into the future if they can get assistance to harness the new technology, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said on Thursday.
Wireless Internet access has "a key role to play everywhere, but especially in developing countries and countries with economies in transition," Annan said in a message to a UN conference on the rapidly growing phenomenon known as Wi-Fi.
Laptops are rare in the developing world and the money to buy the needed electronic gear is scarce.
Some 200 people -- representing technology companies, developing nations, regulators and international agencies -- attended Thursday's conference, organized by the Boston-based Wireless Internet Institute to help bridge the digital divide between the information society and the developing world.
Wi-Fi allows users of laptop computers and other gadgets to access the Internet without electric cords or phone jacks.
A race is on to install access points known as "hotspots" around the world, each capable of linking properly equipped portable computers in the vicinity to the Internet.
Pat Gelsinger, chief technology officer for Intel Corp, the world's biggest computer chip maker, said Wi-Fi was cost-effective, growing rapidly around the world and particularly appropriate for developing nations because it was neither government-regulated nor licensed and was built using industry-wide and worldwide standards.
In March, Intel introduced technology that it hopes by next year will make most new laptops sold in the world wireless-Internet devices.
Gelsinger said Intel was already marketing Wi-Fi in "tens of countries" in the developing world and would be expanding.
In developing nations including China and India, "we are looking at something on the order of 40 million to 50 million PCs and this is the fastest-growing sector of the market," Gelsinger said.
"This reflects a worldwide lust for technology. We see millions of people with the potential to become Wi-Fi users," he said.
"It is precisely in places where no infrastructure exists that Wi-Fi can be particularly effective, helping countries to leapfrog generations of telecommunications technology and infrastructure and empower their people," Annan said.
Annan, who was in Geneva on Thursday and could not deliver his remarks in person, called on governments, regulators, the computer industry and activists to work together to identify obstacles to Wi-Fi development and prepare a plan for overcoming them.
Mohsen Khalil, the World Bank director of information and communications technology, agreed it would take work to get Wi-Fi off the ground in poor areas.
Regulators might yet be tempted to impose charges or other restrictions on the technology, and the equipment costs are not insignificant, he said. And while the technology has shown great promise in tests, "the business model has yet to be tested in developing countries."