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Micro-Cafes With Macro Impact

5:50 PM -- On the heels of the news that Muhammad Yunus of Bangladesh -- the founder of Grameen Bank, pioneering source of "microloans" for poor villagers in South Asia -- has won the Nobel Peace Prize comes the news that GrameenPhone Ltd., the Bangladesh GSM operator, plans to build "Community Information Centers" across the country to give millions of rural villagers access to email and the Internet.

GrameenPhone is 38 percent owned by Grameen Telecom, a non-profit company closely allied with Yunus's Grameen Bank (the majority owner is Norwegian carrier Telenor Group (Nasdaq: TELN)). The Nobel winner's core idea -- that loans so tiny they're not worth the paperwork for conventional banks can have a profound effect on local Third-World economies -- has been transferred to telecommunications via Grameen Telecom's Village Phone Program. Village-level entrepreneurs, often using microloans from Grameen Bank, are supplied with handsets and training to become small-scale service providers in areas with no landline service. Today there are around a quarter-million Village Phones operating in Bangladesh, and the concept has spread to India and to countries in Africa.

Now, GrameenPhone will set up kiosks where villagers can pay a small fee to surf the Web and use email. Like Village Phones, the Centers will be operated by local entrepreneurs, selling time on PCs connected to GrameenPhone's existing GSM network, equipped with Edge technology that offers data transfer speeds of up to 128 kbit/s. A pilot program has already set up 16 CICs, each now being used by an average of 30 people a day.

"We believe widespread access to the Internet will have a profound effect on the social and economic development of Bangladesh," says Erik Aas, CEO of GrameenPhone.

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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