This tropical island off the east coast of Africa is best known for its white-sand beaches, its designer clothing outlets and its spicy curries.
But tiny Mauritius is about to stake a new claim to fame. By year's end, or soon after, it is expected to become the world's first nation with coast-to-coast wireless Internet coverage, the first country to become one big "hot spot."
"If there's anyone who can do it, it's us," said Rizwan Rahim, the head of ADB Networks, the company installing the wireless radio network on the 40-mile-long island. "It's a small place, so for a wireless network, it's manageable. For us, it's a test. If it's successful here, we can island-hop" to mainland Africa.
Like many African nations, this modest country has struggled economically as the industries that underlie its economy -- particularly sugar production and textile manufacturing -- have run into tough global competition and declining prices. Looking for alternatives, the government has settled on a new and ambitious vision: turning sleepy Mauritius, with its endless sugarcane fields and tourist beaches, into a high-tech computer and telecommunications center.
"It is our vision to transform Mauritius into a cyber-island," Deelchand Jeeha, then the country's minister of information technology and telecommunications, said in a speech last year. The nation, he said, "is confident in the potential of [the industry] as an engine of growth which can generate jobs and wealth creation."
Remote Mauritius is in many respects well-placed to win the high-tech investment it wants. An undersea broadband fiber-optic cable, completed three years ago, gives the island fast and reliable phone and Internet links to the rest of Africa and to Europe, India and Malaysia. Many of the country's 1.2 million people -- a mix of French, Indian, Chinese and African descendants -- are bilingual or trilingual, speaking French, English and either Chinese or Hindi. The country is democratic, peaceful and stable.
In Ebene, just south of Port Louis, the capital, the government has built the first of three planned high-tech parks. It also has stepped up training programs to turn out tech-savvy workers and has rewritten its business rules in an effort to create an attractive investment climate. The changes are aimed at luring call centers, remote data-backup facilities for companies worried about terrorist attacks and, eventually, software development companies.
The government's efforts have brought in investment by players such as Microsoft Corp., Oracle Corp., Accenture and India's Infosys Technologies Ltd. and created about 2,000 jobs in the past two years.
"It's the future," said Satyam Gutty, a taxi driver in Port Louis whose daughter recently graduated with a degree in information technology. "It's a big chance for Mauritius."
That's evident at evening computer courses set up across the country by the private National Productivity and Competitiveness Council. Even in rural areas, housewives, businessmen, schoolchildren and agricultural laborers are getting their first chance to use computers, part of the government's goal of making its entire society computer-literate.
"It's something extraordinary to see people with rough hands from manual labor holding the mouse," said Oomme Narod, a senior analyst with the council. About 37,000 people have been trained in computer basics, she said.
That doesn't mean, however, that Mauritius is suddenly flush with skilled high-tech workers. Many of those emerging from information-technology training courses are prepared to work as call-center operators -- but not as software engineers.
The government "wants to create a cyber-island, but they haven't changed their regulation and infrastructure enough to create the climate," Rahim said. If Mauritius doesn't act quickly, he warned, it might well see its cyber-island idea adopted by other countries.
"There are policy decisions that still need to be taken," said Narod, of the competitiveness council. Right now, "there is improvement, but at a slow pace."
Mauritius's courts have shown signs of holding the government to its competitiveness policies, which may ease the way for investors.
"If any investor had called me three months ago and asked about investing, I would have told them to go somewhere else," Rahim said. Now, he said, "you have to come in with open eyes and an African mentality of patience, but if you persevere, you can get results."
From his office window in Mauritius's new Cybertower -- a sleek, blue-glass and gray-stone tower that is the heart of the country's first high-tech park -- Rahim can point to one of five new radio transmission antennas his company has installed recently perched beside a Hindu temple on a green mountainside.
The antennas now beam his wireless Internet service over about 60 percent of the island and within range of 70 percent of its population. Business contracts for the service went on sale recently; a residential launch has been delayed only because national elections in July ate up all the advertising space in local media.
By year's end, he said, he hopes to have enough antennas up to cover 90 percent of the mountainous island. Getting to every last corner, he said, might take a little longer.