Wireless Public Servants Parachute Over the Digital Divide
By Howard Rheingold, Fri Aug 02 00:00:00 GMT 2002

Telecoms sans Frontieres, Geekcorps and wire.less.dk cannot do miracle, but what they can do is help boost effectiveness.

On June 4, 2002, the Zeyzoun dam in Syria ruptured. Twenty people died and thousands were left homeless. Four days later, at the invitation of the Syrian government and the Red Crescent, a team of emergency wireless telecommunications specialists set off for the disaster scene. On June 10, Télécoms sans Frontières arrived, set up temporary housing for homeless survivors, then set to work installing a satellite uplink, Internet hub, and telephone link to coordinate disaster relief and enable survivors to telephone their families.

In Ghana, my friend Tomas Krag, on a mission for another organization, the Geekcorps, conceived the idea for the project that now occupies him — creating low-cost, rugged, solar-powered, wireless Internet satellite links in areas of Africa where wired infrastructure is non-existent and economically unlikely.

Télécoms sans Frontières was out of the Zeyzoun dam region by June 16th, after establishing immediate emergency services that were taken over by local and international long-term relief workers. The Geekcorps and Krag's own organization, wire.less.dk, focus on longtime economic development benefits.

Both kinds of organizations leverage an economic advantage of wireless communications infrastructure for humanitarian purposes: Portable satellite uplinks can provide Internet access and telephony, which can be redistributed through less expensive wireless LANs.

In parts of the world where these activists work, the cost of providing wireline networks where there are few or no roads is out of the question. Voice Over Internet Protocol, coupled with wireless Internet access makes it possible to provide voice telephony even in the absence of wired infrastructure

Télécoms sans Frontières, like their larger namesake, Médecins Sans Frontières, is a non-governmental organization "without borders" that brings expert volunteers to the sites of wars and natural disasters. The organization was founded in July 1998 by 42-year-old Jean-François Cazenave, an employee of France Télécom. Instead of bringing medical aid, TSF's mission is to bring "the humanitarian telephone system" to places where telecommunications support for rescue and relief efforts never existed or have been destroyed.

Sponsors include France Telecom, Inmarsat, Cable and Wireless, and organizations such as Fondation de France. TSF, working in partnership with the Red Cross and the UN High Commission on Refugees, is capable of becoming "completely operational within 48 hours whatever the situation and wherever in the world."

Local and global telecommunications capabilities, although not as immediately vital as medical treatment, food, shelter, and water, are essential to the professionals whose mission is to provide those vital services. Global, reliable, high-speed voice and data communications enable NGOs and local authorities to coordinate relief and establish essential services.

TSF addresses the human aspects of emergencies as well as the logistics of basic relief. "Being a refugee, its like no longer being a person," is a quote on TSF's website. In addition to logistical and communications assistance to emergency agencies, TSF provides long and anxiously awaited telephone calls to the families of disaster victims and refugees. Since 1999, TSF has performed missions in East Timor, El Salvador Eritrea, Guinea, India, Italy, Kosovo, Macedonia, Peru, Thailand, Toulouse (France) and Turkey.

Most recently, TSF was in Uzbekistan and Afghanistan from November, 2001 to February, 2002, providing communications support for NGOs and UN organizations providing humanitarian aid to war refugees, leaving behind a permanent satellite Internet connection for the continuous use of those agencies. In January 2002, TSF personnel were called to the site of the eruption of volcano Nyiragongo in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to establish networks for the Red Cross and other agencies.

TSF, although a small organization, is a globally-capable, well-funded, well-staffed NGO. Other humanitarian applications of wireless technology to developing-world problems take a grassroots approach. I learned about GeekCorps from Tomas Krag, an idealistic and technically capable fellow I knew from several online communities. I met Krag met face to face in his hometown, Copenhagen, in June, 2002.

He described his project, a rugged, solar and rechargeable battery-powered, inexpensive, satellite uplink and WLAN distribution kit, the "Autonokit." When he told me that he got the idea as a volunteer in Accra, Ghana, when he was staying at "Geekhalla," I knew there was a story to be told.

Krag, dissatisfied with the values of the dotcom era, wanted to apply his talents to helping make the world a slightly better place, instead of racing toward an IPO. He heard about GeekCorps in Spring, 2000, and, as he told me, "within twenty minutes, I decided to volunteer for their first group of technical consultants in Ghana."

Geekcorps is a project of a large, more traditional NGO, the International Executive Service Corps. IESC focuses on assisting small and medium-sized businesses in developing countries. Geekcorps provides technical expertise in telecommunications and Internet technologies to assist the growth of one of the most dynamic sectors of small business enterprise in Africa, telecommunications. Krag kept an online diary of his experiences in Ghana. He realized that for much of Africa, wire line communications were out of the question for the foreseeable future, but that a combination of satellite links and Wi-Fi, and voice over IP could bring telephony and even Internet to remote regions, at a fraction of the price and time necessary for traditional telephone infrastructure.

When I asked him what the immediate needs such technology would fulfill, Krag answered without hesitation: "The spot labor market. Knowing which nearby village needs how much labor right now would have immediate economic consequences." Krag and his partner, Sebastian Büttrich, have created a specification for the Autonokit. They want to "make deployment of wireless Internet infrastructure in developing nations a good deal easier" by designing and testing a kit "for use in extreme climatic conditions, both on and off the electrical grid, maintainable under difficult conditions."

Autonokit combines "a battery, to be charged by a solar module, the grid, car power, or other electrical source, acentral access point/gateway as the central unit of shared wireless or wired access, an Internet connection, alternatively by fixed line, fixed wireless, satellite, gsm or other, an authentication/access control model,and a necessary antennae." A modular design makes it easier to repair simply by replacing parts, and to customize the system for local conditions." Currently, they are seeking financing to assemble and field test their designs.

Telecommunications infrastructure won't halt famines, prevent earthquakes, or stop wars, but Télécoms sans Frontières and organizations like it, can multiply the effectiveness of those people who are trying to feed, heal, and house the victims of disaster and conflict.

Affordable telephone calls and access to the Internet is not going to drive the economic growth of developing countries, but it can multiply the effectiveness of those people who are trying to build small and medium-sized businesses. Humanitarian telecommunications has its place in toolkit of NGOs and development organizations.

With a background in technology writing, Howard Rheingold is the world's foremost authority on virtual communities. His 1988 article in Whole Earth Review, titled "Virtual Communities," contained the first-ever published reference to the concept. His 1993 book, The Virtual Community, was the first work on the phenomenon of social communication in cyberspace.

Howard served as an online host for the Well since 1985, and sat on the Well Board of Directors. In 1994, he was the founding Executive Editor of HotWired, the first commercial webzine with a virtual community known as Threads. He now runs a private community, Brainstorms.