Magazine article Newsweek International

The Humblest Digital City

Magazine article Newsweek International

The Humblest Digital City

Article excerpt

Byline: Mac Margolis

You won't find Pirai in a Fodor's guide. Nor is this poky town of 23,600 inhabitants, whose renown peaked during the 19th-century Brazilian coffee boom, exactly the nerve center of Latin American high technology. But if it were up to Mayor Luiz Fernando de Souza, known to all as Pezo, or Bigfoot in Portuguese, all this will change. Late last year, on the eve of his eighth and final year in office, Souza launched his most ambitious plan ever. He vowed to outfit all municipal facilities, from the town hall to the public schools, with broadband, wireless Internet access.

It sounded quixotic at best. Only a fraction of Brazilians had Internet access of any kind. Even now, just 6 percent of the country's 11 million Web users enjoy broadband connections--and barely one in 20 of them has gone wireless. What's more, 90 percent of this vanguard lives in big cities, like Rio de Janeiro. But Bigfoot was never one to think small, and by early this year he'd gone off tilting at transmission towers.

Now humble Pirai, tucked discreetly behind a tall sierra 80 kilometers from Rio de Janeiro, may be the most advanced outpost of wirelessness in Brazil. Radio waves beamed from base stations perched on hills high above the town bring digital data into Pirai at a respectable 14 megabits per second. The signal is picked up by antennas, each the size of a cigarette pack, in health clinics, city hall and open-air kiosks where passers-by can log on for free. …

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