Laotian farmers hatched the scheme this year while talking with development workers from the Jhai Foundation, a San Francisco nonprofit group. Laos is a brutal place to farm, littered with Vietnam-era unexploded ordnance and racked by a dusty dry season. The farmers figured that the Web would help them track weather movements and price swings in rice, allowing them to optimize the scanty profits from their crops.

There’s just one problem. How do you bring the Web to people who don’t have phone lines — or even electricity?

With a level of ingenuity that would have impressed Robinson Crusoe, it turns out. Thorn’s group is cobbling together five inexpensive computers with out-of-date microchips. To link these computers to the Internet, they’re using cheap wireless broadcasting stations — much like the ones that you can buy at Radio Shack for a few hundred dollars. A tower located in a Laotian city will tap into the Net and the local phone system, then blast the signal toward the villages nine miles away. A second tower will catch that signal and route it wirelessly to each village, like a hub with spokes. No expensive satellites or copper-wire phone lines needed.
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