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Himalayan villages go online
The Nepal Wireless Networking Project
A village clinic with Internet access
Photo Credit: Y. Kawasumi
A village clinic with Internet access
 
Mahabir Pun received the Ramon
Magsaysay Award for his community leadershi
In 2007, Mahabir Pun received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for his community leadership and “innovative application of wireless computer technology in Nepal, bringing progress to remote mountain areas by connecting his village to the global village”. The award has been called “the Nobel prize of Asia”.
Photo credit: Y. Kawasumi

Mahabir Pun was born in what is now the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal. After finishing his studies at a university in the United States, in 1992, he returned home with a dream: to provide opportunities for the people in his native village of Nangi, amid the western Himalayan foothills in the district of Myagdi. He joined with local residents to upgrade the village school to become the Himanchal Higher Secondary School. This has become not only a source of education, but also the hub of community development. Its effectiveness in this role is greatly supported by another innovation promoted by Mr Pun: connecting the school to the Internet in a network that now covers thousands of people in nearby communities.

Two computers were donated to the school in 1997, but, with no mobile phone coverage or fixedline telephones — as well as the difficulty of gaining access to remote areas in a harsh climate — achieving Internet connectivity was a hard challenge. Eventually it was decided that wireless networking would provide the best and most cost-effective solution, through Wi-Fi technology linked to the nearest Internet service provider in the city of Pokhara. International volunteers were recruited to help bring in donated equipment, set up the network, and teach villagers how to expand and maintain it, while Mr Pun and his group also learned how to assemble computers themselves. By 2002, the high school in Nangi was connected to the Internet.

The following year saw the formal launch of the Nepal Wireless Networking Project, with the aim of expanding the Wi-Fi network throughout Myagdi and the neighbouring districts of Parbat and Kaski. Funds were raised nationally and internationally through the intensive efforts of Mr Pun and his supporters and also through international partnerships with aid agencies. By 2008, Internet connections had been provided to community centres, schools and clinics in 42 villages, with plans to add 19 more. ITU contributed equipment worth some USD 30 000 to the work.

 
Himalayan villages go online
Antennas connect a school to a network relay station
Photo credit: Y. Kawasumi

Connecting computers

The Myagdi network of the Nepal Wireless Networking Project is owned and run by the Himanchal Higher Secondary School. The organizational structure involves many community stakeholders, allowing for democratic participation as well as the sharing of profits and risks. The school builds and manages the network, but services are provided through independent communication centres in each village that are run by local people.

The networking system has two relay stations to forward the wireless signal to a base station and server facility in Pokhara, with a connection to Om Hospital in the city. In the mountain villages, access to services is provided mainly through used desktop computers and laptops. Internet telephony equipment and high-resolution network cameras facilitate phone services, telemedicine and e-education. Many of the computers have been donated by individuals and businesses from inside the country and abroad, while others were assembled by local people from donated parts.

A variety of wireless devices maintain connectivity. The network’s backbone connects the Pokhara base station to the two major relay stations, which are linked to villages via client connections. In five cases, connected villages also act as relay stations, due to the difficulty of transmitting the signal over the mountains. The network server in Pokhara uses open source Linux software, which has proved to be capable of maintenance by local volunteers through the use of graphical user interfaces and customized management software.

Sustainable power

Because of their isolation, the villages do not have access to a mains electricity grid. Instead, the relay stations use such sources as solar energy. The electricity for a computer laboratory at the school in Nangi comes from a micro-hydroelectric system in a local stream. There are plans to increase its output to power a grid for the entire village.

Services for the community

The services that are now available in these remote mountain villages include:

  • Internet Access: for students, teachers, local residents and tourists

  • E-mail: Villagers use the free accounts available through nepalwireless.net or other web mail services, such as Yahoo or MSN Hotmail

  • Internet Access: for students, teachers, local residents and tourists

  • Telephone service: Ordinary landline phone calls can be placed through Internet telephony equipment and the private branch exchange (PBX) software on the network server

  • e-Education: To help address a shortage of qualified teachers, there are programmes to provide live lessons to school classrooms using networked cameras

  • Telemedicine: In collaboration with Om Hospital in Pokhara, medical services are offered to residents of remote areas through audio and video links

  • Community: Using an online forum, villagers can exchange news and opinions, place advertisements, and engage in community affairs

  • Money transfers: In collaboration with thamel. com, a business based in Kathmandu, the capital of the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal, money transfers (used by family members working abroad) and credit card transactions are available.

These services have been enthusiastically taken up by local people. They can go online at community centres for a low fee, and voice-over-Internet-protocol (VoIP) phone calls can also be made. Lessons in basic computer skills are offered too, by students from a technical college in Kathmandu. And women health workers in the villages are trained at hospitals in the capital or in Pokhara.

While remaining affordable by local people, the charges for services generate revenue for the Nepal Wireless Networking Project, to sustain and expand its work. Meanwhile, residents in neighbouring Himalayan villages that are not yet connected understand the benefits of the project: they sometimes walk for several hours to reach centres where they can access the Internet or VoIP phone services.

Job creation

One of the most important goals of the project is to give rural residents a better way to trade goods, and to create jobs. Also, Himanchal Higher Secondary School offers vocational training programmes and is engaged in community development projects such as animal husbandry, forest conservation, and handicrafts.

Yak and cattle farming is one example. The wireless network is used to manage a project in which the animals are kept in fields near the relay stations, high up on the mountain slopes. Despite the isolation, herders can communicate with other staff using e-mail on a laptop computer. Projects like these are also targeting the tourist market. Camp grounds for trekkers have been established near where the yak graze, and the animals’ milk is used to make cheese that is sold to tourist lodges.

 
The ITU mission team with staff of Himanchal Higher
Secondary School and residents of Nangi village
The ITU mission team with staff of Himanchal Higher Secondary School and residents of Nangi village
Photo credit: Y. Kawasumi

ITU visit

Ten of the connected villages were visited in May 2008 by a team representing Study Group 2 of ITU’s Telecommunication Development Sector (ITU–D), examining Question 10-2/2 on Telecommunications for rural and remote areas. Their mission was to study cost-effective technological solutions for rural communications in developing countries. In addition, the team delivered more equipment for the network, donated by ITU.

The team’s report gave high marks to the effectiveness and sustainability of the Nepal Wireless Networking Project, which it concluded “has greatly contributed to social and human development in Himalayan mountain villages”.

Future expansion

Before the project, there was no telecommunication infrastructure in the Myagdi area, very limited electricity supplies and few roads. Despite this, a wireless network has been established to bring information and communication technologies to villagers in the Himalayan foothills. Partnerships are being sought with the national and local governments, and a “One dollar a month” campaign has been launched to raise donations. There is a strategic plan to expand the Nepal Wireless Networking Project to as many rural areas of the country as possible that otherwise could remain unserved.

* More details of the Nepal Wireless Networking Project are available at: www.nepalwireless.net/index.php

 

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