Wireless Broadband for Everyone, Everywhere...by Pony Express?
By Howard Rheingold, Wed Jul 07 15:00:00 GMT 2004

Every morning, five Honda motorcycles equipped with mobile Wi-Fi access points automatically connect to the Internet as soon as they drive near the 256 kbps satellite of a provincial hospital in northeastern Cambodia.

The drivers of the "Motoman" project then fan out to thirteen rural villages -- one so remote that a mobile access point (MAP) is transported by oxcart. As each vehicle approaches the solar-powered fixed access points in each village, the MAPs automatically exchange 20 megabytes of ingoing and outgoing e-mail. In the evening, the mobile couriers return with their digital saddlebags to the satellite uplink.

On the Gangetic Plain of rural India, MAPs installed in the regular daily buses send and retrieve digital packages in the same way. The MAPs on the buses cost US $580, and it cost $185 to make a village kiosk "DakNet ready." Alex "Sandy" Pentland, co-founder of the MIT Media Lab's Digital Nations consortium, estimates that it would cost only $15 million to equip every one of India's 50,000 rural buses with MAPs, "and thereby provide mobile ad hoc connectivity to most of the 750 million people in rural India."

The DakNet system, "an ad hoc network that uses wireless technology to provide asynchronous digital connectivity," was developed at the Media Lab and Media Lab Asia by Pentland and Richard Fletcher, with Amir Hasson, co-founder with Fletcher of First Mile Solutions. The name DakNet comes from the Hindi word for "postal." The postal notion embodies the founders' belief that low-cost asynchronous communication such as e-mail, voicemail, document transfer and offline search, was a more useful starting point for rural villages than landline voice telephony.

Pentland believes that it's a "tragic compromise" to think about starting with simple telephone connectivity rather than going for "wireless broadband for everyone." He points out that packet-based broadband costs one-ninth of what copper and fiber landline services cost, and can do at least one thing that rural villagers need and voice telephony can't provide -- document transfer. When it takes two to three days to travel to a city to obtain land records, driver's licenses or loan applications, the ability to obtain forms remotely becomes economically desirable in rural India. In Cambodia, 225 rural schools operated by CambodiaSchools.com now search the Web through a non-real-time search engine; classes that can't afford textbooks can fetch pages from WikiPedia.

The next time I found myself in Cambridge, Mass., I talked to Pentland in his office and with one of the other two principals, Richard Fletcher, at a local restaurant. Talking to them in person made it clear that they believe that finding local communication needs that can be provided inexpensively to remote rural areas are a first step that can encourage local entrepreneurs to start kiosk businesses that provide a service to the entire community.

By 2004 DakNet was working on projects in Brazil, Colombia, Nigeria, Jordan, Kenya, New Zealand, Tanzania, Rwanda, the Congo, New Zealand and Eastern Kiribati, as well as "Village Area Networking Kits." When I asked about latest developments, Pentland replied: "The 'new new' thing is a collaboration with MIT and INCAE (the leading Latin American biz school) to produce a replicable, economically validated template for connecting rural Latin America. The basic idea is to provide connectivity using regional delivery trucks. Village kiosks are put at local storefronts/bars, and provide digital shopping with a much wider range of choice than any one small store can offer. The kiosk emails regional stores with the order (delivered via the truck) and the next day the truck brings the purchased goods to the local store. Result: a wider range of goods available at lower prices (counting travel costs). The real win is that the same system provides a mechanism for locals to advertise and deliver their wares/services locally (and of course globally, but for the average village local is much more important than global)."

UC Berkeley professor Eric Brewer (co-founder of Inktomi) leads an NSF-funded project to bring wireless infrastructure and other information tech to rural villages in developing nations like India. Technology Infrastructure for Emerging Regions (the TIER project) "focuses on developing a hardware/software infrastructure explicitly designed for the physical, political and economic realities of developing areas."

San Francisco Bay-area technopioneer Lee Felsenstein, one of the founding members of the Homebrew Computing and the designer of the Osborne, the first "luggable" PC, launched another effort in Laos at the request of Vietnam veteran Lee Thorne, founder of the Jhai Foundation: "After having been uprooted by the bombing of the Plain of Jars, the villagers have little left but their solid social structure. Lacking electricity and phones, they asked Jhai Foundation for a way to make phone calls so that they could communicate with relatives overseas and to secure local crop pricing information. They also wanted the use of small spreadsheets and simple word processing so that they could bid on things like construction jobs. I sketched out a system of rugged bicycle-powered computers, one per village, interconnected by Wi-Fi (802.11b) digital data links and coupled to the local phone system several miles away. Through this system VOIP (digital telephone) calls could be placed to the local phone lines as well as long-distance calls through Internet telephony to relatives overseas."

If meeting immediate needs via ICT, saving villagers time and money, can start their local economies on the road to low-cost digital communication, then perhaps WAPs on buses and motorbikes might be the kind of globalization that can lift the prospects for billions, rather than the profits of a few.

What other projects successful, failed, or still experimental do others know about?