The world of hubs, routers and servers may be a mystery to many but increasingly is the language of the future as far as telecommunications is concerned. These are the building blocks of networks that send information between computers, the infrastructure of the Internet. Understanding this dynamic world means starting earlier and earlier. In the United States, where the industry has its heart, up to 1,000 schools have signed up for a scheme that offers students instruction in the basics of building and maintaining data networks. The project is backed by perhaps the biggest name in the business, Cisco Systems, which has just brought the programme to Asia. It has launched an initiative with Fudan University in Shanghai and hopes the idea will spread across the mainland. Elsewhere in the region it has set up programmes in Taiwan and the Philippines. 'Initially, the idea was purely to address the shortage of information technology (IT) manpower in the US,' Cisco's manager of education programmes in Asia, Marcus Lim Wah-Onn, said. 'The way to get people interested in an IT career is to really enthuse them at an early age.' In Asia, the scheme has particular resonance as national leaders look increasingly to IT development to spur economic growth. 'Most developing countries are aware that, as you emerge, it is critical that you get the infrastructure to build your future economy on. A lot of countries hit by the currency crisis in Asia are still putting a lot of investment into infrastructure,' Mr Lim said. A curriculum based on four semesters (about 280 hours) takes students through building, developing and maintaining networks and leads to a certificate endorsed by Cisco. More importantly for them, US evidence has proved that it generally leads to enhanced job or further education prospects. Cisco donates equipment and trains staff in what it calls regional centres, then lets the centres train others. 'What we set about doing was to come up with a curriculum. Once we hand it over we pretty much let the school run it . . . we're hands off,' Mr Lim said. Though we might not know it, data networking increasingly affects all our lives. It is not just the Internet. Most companies, organisations and governments these days rely on their own local or wide-area network systems as an integral part of operations. It is an area of tremendous growth. Look at Cisco itself. Born in the mid-1980s, it is now worth about US$100 billion, one of the biggest companies in the world. The Fudan deal commits the university to recruit, manage and support 10 other educational institutions which can offer the so-called Cisco Networking Academy to students. By the end of this year, Mr Lim reckoned that 90 mainland middle schools, colleges and universities could be in a position to offer the programme. His target across Asia is 500 schools. Fudan University professor of networking and information technology Zhang Shiyong said he hoped to graduate as many as 80 students and five trainers from the first year. Mr Lim estimated it would cost about $14,000 to get the necessary equipment for the course. At this cost, it is obvious most schools in Asia could not afford it. Neither is Cisco about to foot the bill for equipment for hundreds of schools across the region. Instead, it hopes to draw other sponsors and vendors into the scheme. The company will not say how much its programme costs but the rationale is clear. 'If many people can understand the new technology of networking it would be good for our products and applications here,' general manager of China market development Jie Wei said. It does not release country figures, but the mainland is a big market for Cisco. The main data-networking equipment vendors appear to have avoided the pressure that Beijing applies to other hi-tech companies for technology transfer and investment in joint-venture manufacturing operations. The traditional big telecom equipment manufacturers all have set up joint ventures and now make much of the equipment they sell in the mainland domestically. In other cases they sponsor higher-educational institutes or have set up research and development facilities. Cisco's mainland academy may be simply a logical extension of a worldwide initiative, but it will not hurt its image in a market likely to be one of its biggest for some time to come.