The focus of the project is on "first mile" and "first inch" technologies, which departs significantly from the traditional "last mile" thinking. The project's title (First Mile First Inch) reflects its innovative approach. "First Mile" refers to connectivity between access devices and access providers but represents a more bottom-up analysis focusing on the end user. The rapid development in recent years of wireless technologies and open source telephony applications show dramatic potential for this approach. The "First Inch" component of the project addresses the fact that it is often not enough to place technology in the hands of users and that technology must be adapted to the local environment.
The focus is on how to serve the customer and not how to roll out a telecommunications service. "First mile" comprises connectivity technologies such as WiFi, wired Ethernet, powerline technologies, bluetooth, narrowband HF/VHF/UHF and mesh networks employing any of these technologies. "First Inch" focuses on access devices such as traditional PCs, PCs running open source software, recycled PCs, thin clients, handheld PDAs and cellular devices, and the applications running on these devices, starting with basic internet access and email, but also including VoIP telephony, voice-mail, instant messaging or chat and more specialised applications and interfaces designed around the specific needs of the end-user.
While in most developing countries the monopoly over fixed line networks precludes innovation in the way rural communities are provided with access, there are opportunities, such as the unbundling of the local loop or last mile, as well as potential small Internet Service Provider (ISP) development in remote areas. This suggests that innovation requires a different mindset, an approach that focuses on communities, empowers communities and a sense of ownership and control of communications infrastructure in communities. This is the basis of approach of ICT Liberationist and 2003/4 IDRC Scholar, Onno Purbo, whose home grown community networks in Indonesia was recently presented at the Acacia conference in April 2003 and through a video replayed at the "Last Mile Modalities" planning workshop for Acacia partners in Southern Africa held at the CSIR in September 2003. Through the use of innovative ICTs and a "Just do it" approach, Onno has created a networked community that is now expanding and creating new demand for ICTs on shoestring budgets, but with much support and motivation at the community level.
Many of the "first mile" technologies are cutting edge and not yet supported by Telco's who are committed to older technologies servicing mass markets, yet another reason why their existing business models have not worked for the rural poor. A different business model is needed.
Some countries have a telecommunications policy that inhibits the use of "first mile" technologies and require licensing. Regulatory policy should support community development, not hinder it. It has been demonstrated in South Africa that despite obligations on the fixed line monopoly, Telkom's rollout of communications infrastructure in rural areas resulted in more than 700 000 lines again being disconnected in these areas. In order to overcome this under serviced situation in South Africa the government has created the opportunity for Under Serviced Area Licensee's (USALs). The use of "first mile" technologies will therefore demonstrate to government how technology can benefit the poor and influence government in the development of it's regulatory policy.
However, this not being the case for other partners collaborating in this research, efforts should be sought to improve the first mile infrastructure in an effort to test the project hypotheses that innovative "first mile" solutions can provide access to ICTs for poor communities and can create demand by providing relevant content and delivering applications based on sustainable business models.
Better understanding and addressing of the context is also required. Most solutions assume literate users with experience in using modern technology. These assumptions don't necessarily hold in rural areas in a developing world context such as the Southern African regions that are being investigated here. Most technology also assumes that users speak a world language such as English and local languages are not supported. Metaphors are generally based on western ideas. The larger FMFI project will try to address many of these issues.