In western China's Gansu province, primary school students download and print agricultural information from the Jinta county government's Web site for their parents and neighbours. This is just one example of how schools in rural China are helping communities bridge "the last kilometre" and bring the benefits of IT to people who live in these areas

The question of how to make IT more accessible to people in different regions of China was one of the topics addressed by attendees at the recent China Computerworld CEO & CIO Summit in Beijing.

The use of IT in China's rural areas has always lagged behind other regions in the country. The government's Golden Agriculture project, created to spur the rural use of IT, has been under way for 11 years, but the issue remains of connecting users over the last kilometer.

Why not use satellites?
Li Youping, an academician at the Chinese Academy of Engineering, said the greatest obstacle to offering Internet access in rural and mountainous areas is the difficulty of building fibre-optic and broadband networks in these regions.

He suggested using satellite technology to put Web pages within the reach of Chinese farmers. Roughly 10 Gbyte to 30 Gbyte of information on Web sites is refreshed throughout China everyday. DVB-S satellite technology is capable of transmitting from 100 Gbyte to 300 Gbyte of information to end users. Satellite broadcasts are not affected by traffic congestion when more users are downloading information, which means important Web content could be distributed to every rural household, he said.

Under current plans, 95 percent of Chinese villages will have Internet access by the end of this month. With the implementation of distance-learning projects, many rural schools are now equipped with PCs. By adding an antenna and a server, an access point for information can be established in these villages, Li said.

There are about 1,000 major Web sites in China and digital libraries can be created by sending these Web pages via satellite to local servers, Li said. The investment required to set up systems like this would not exceed several hundred renminbi, or less than US$100, and would consist of an antenna to receive the satellite broadcast and a computer based on a domestically manufactured processor and a 120 Gbyte hard disk.

By this modest investment, Chinese farmers will get access to a huge amount of information, Li said.

A matter of geography
Zhu Hua, chief engineer of Guizhou province's Information Industry Department of Guizhou, said he found Li's proposal enlightening. Zhu said determining how to bring IT access to rural areas depends to a large degree on the geography and other factors in each region. Because the economy and infrastructure in western China lags far behind that of the country's eastern areas, new strategies for expanding the use of IT in western China must be developed instead of copying what has been done in the east.

Zhu also expressed the hope that the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC), which oversees the .cn top-level domain name and conducts a twice-yearly survey of Internet use in China, will begin tracking the number of Internet users in rural China versus the number in urban areas. The availability of this information would be insightful and support efforts to expand rural Internet use, he said.