Connecting Rural Nepal to the Global Village
MAHABIR PUN, a 2007 Magsaysay awardee, explains the strategies and lessons learned in his wireless communication projects in remote, rural Nepal.
Over the past few years a great deal of attention has been placed on issues of information and communication technology access and the “digital divide” by development organizations and governments throughout the world. The wireless project that we have started in Nepal has taken a serious look at the same issues, but it approached the problem from a grassroots perspective. We have named the project as Nepal Wireless Networking Project.
The Nepal Wireless Networking Project was not started as a result of the policies and decisions made by international organizations or the Government of Nepal. It started with a dream, and the dream unexpectedly turned into a project in pursuit of finding ways to bring Internet and telephone services at Himanchal Higher Secondary School of Myagdi district, which is situated at one day’s trek from the nearest road-accessible town of Nepal. Now the wireless network of Myagdi is one of the several networking projects that we have started in Nepal.
It took almost seven years to make the dream come true in a very unfavorable working situation in Nepal. The autocratic rule of the king and the presence of the communist insurgents in the rural areas of Nepal created a great deal of difficulty in setting up and running the network. Regardless, the project successfully overcame those obstacles and set up a pilot wireless network in an area where no business dared to go.
I would like to share the goals of the project before I share the challenges that we had faced, the strategies we had taken and the lessons we had learned from the project.
1.1 Goals and Objectives
The long-term goal is to maximize the benefits of wireless technology for the rural population in mountainous areas in order to make the life of villagers a bit easier and more enjoyable. Specifically, we aim to achieve the following goals, divided into six main goal areas:
• Communication: To increase communication facilities in the mountainous areas by providing Internet phone system (VoIP), by making Internet available and by making local e-bulletin board accessible to the villagers.
• Education: To increase educational opportunities in the rural schools by creating a live tele-teaching program and by providing e-learning materials to students, and teachers through the Intranet in order to meet the shortage of qualified teachers.
• Health: To establish a tele-hospital in urban area and link it to the district level hospitals and rural health centers in order to increase the quality and availability of healthcare in the rural communities. The goal is to bring medical doctors virtually in the remote villages to provide medical assistance to the villagers through telemedicine program.
• E-governance: To empower district governments launch e-governance program by helping to set up a district data center in district headquarters and by linking the local governments to the district headquarters through wireless technology.
• Local e-commerce: To help villagers to put information of their products in the local market through local intranet site, and to provide information of their produces to potential buyers as well as to get the market price of their produces.
• Job and Business Creation: To generate jobs for younger generation locally through communication centers, e-learning and local e-commerce programs
While attaining all these goals will take time, the project already provides some of the benefits mentioned above to the villagers, such as communication, educational, and telemedicine facilities. Right now we are focusing more on live teleteaching and local e-commerce programs.
The following is the satellite photo of the villages that are networked using Wi-fi technology. The project was completed in 2005, and we are working on connecting 10 more villages now with the support of the International Telecommunication Union.
First I would like to tell in brief about the area that has been serviced by the network.
Network Service Area
All the villages serviced by the network have no motor-accessible roads. The villages are accessible only by foot. It takes eight days of walking to visit all the villages that are in the wireless network.
The wireless network currently offers connectivity and Internet and communication facilities to thirteen communities of Nepal. The villages serviced by the network vary in size from 150 to 2,485 people. Additionally, it has created two relay stations (to forward the signal over mountain passes), a base station/server facility, and a connection to a hospital in Pokhara for telemedicine program. Photos of some of the villages that are connected are given below.
Furthermore, seven high schools in the region are connected to the networks that also serve as the communication centers for the villages. The total number of students of the seven schools is about 1,700. Those schools have from six to fifteen computers.
2. Challenges Faced and Strategies Taken to Overcome
I would like to categorize the challenges that we had faced in three areas, which are as follows. In the mean time I would like to explain the strategies we took to overcome them.
• Technical Challenges
• Financial Challenges
• Legal Challenges
• Management Challenges
2.1 Technical Challenges:
The very first challenge was the technical challenge because all of the technical people involved for setting up the network at the initial stage including the author of this paper had only a very little idea about setting up wireless network and the technology itself.
The main challenge was the distance and high mountains as the obstruction to the Wi-fi radio signals. The distance between my village and the nearest city with the Internet connection were about 40 km with a 3,200m high mountain in between. Since the number of such long distance links using Wi-fi technology did not exist that time, many of the telecommunication engineers were not sure if such a long distance connection would work. Therefore the pilot test was conducted in spring 2002 mainly to determine the feasibility of connecting the village of Nangi to Pokhara, to access the Internet. We started the testing using different kinds of homemade antennas in shorter ranges and then increased the distance to 10 km, which worked very well. Therefore we had decided to test the link to a city that was 34-km far.
Our strategy to overcome the technical challenges from the very beginning was “learning by doing” or “let us see what happens” type. In other words, we had to play with the wireless equipment a lot in order to find how it works and what works the best.
We were very happy when we became able to connect the city that was 34-km far. The pictures of the very first long-range testing period using mesh dish antennas are given below
After the successful testing of the long distance link, we did not have any difficulties in connecting 13 villages in the region because all the villages were in the range of from 10 to 20 kilimeter ranges from the nearest relay stations.
Another technical challenge was the unavailability of power at the relay stations and in some of the villages. Since the two major relay stations were at remote areas, we had to use solar energy to power up the radio equipment. However, solar energy was not enough because those areas get lots of clouds. Therefore we are using wind generators and a bicycle generator at the relay stations as back up power system. Still the power is not enough especially when the mountains get cloud for more than a week during the monsoon season. At that situation we need to shut down the radios during the night. The following photos are the power sources we are using at the relay stations.
2.2 Financial Challenges
The second challenge was finding funds to expand the network to more villages. For the testing phase of the project, different individuals in the US had donated Dlink 900 AP Wi-fi access points and the people living in the cities of Nepal donated their TV mesh dish antennas that they were not using. Therefore it took some time to connect more villages in the network after we successfully tested the long-range connection.
It was mainly because of the shortage of funding, the implementation of the network occurred in two stages. In the first phase, we had connected five villages in September 2003. Funds for the first phase (USD6,000) were obtained from an undergraduate student (Mark Michalski) of the Univeristy of California at Los Angeles, who received a grant from the Donald Strauss Foundation in the USA. The fund was augmented by subsidized equipment from the smartBridges Company of Singapore, and the Pacific Wireless Company of the USA. A server using free software called Jana Server provided Internet access to the villages with a dial-up connection in Pokhara for about six months. However, the cost for the telephone connection and the Internet connection was very high. Therefore the project decided to replace the dial-up connection by a 64 Kpbs dedicated wireless connection from a Nepali ISP in Pokhara.
The second phase of the network implementation expanded coverage to eight more villages in 2005. It added a number of important network services, replaced equipment from the first phase that had malfunctioned and built a strong backbone for the network. The bulk of the funding (USD20,000) for this phase was obtained from a World Bank grant through the Poverty Alleviation Funds of the Government of Nepal. The fund was supplemented by a grant of USD 4,500 from the International Center for Applied Studies in Information Technology at the George Mason University School of Public Policy, USA for handbook printing, training and publicity. The followings are some of the photo from the first phase and the second phase of the project.
We had used most of the funding that we had received to buy wireless gears such as radios, switches, storage batteries, solar powers, network camera, Internet telephone sets etc. We did not have any money left to buy computers for the schools.
Getting computers for the schools was another challenge. Therefore we decided to collect used computers from donors. Most of the computers were acquired by requesting individuals and businesses abroad to donate used computer parts that were then sent to tourists or volunteers coming to Nepal. Those parts were collected at a contact point in Kathmandu and then carried to villages where they were assembled in wooden boxes. In the case of laptops, the process was much simpler: the whole laptop was sent from abroad and then carried to the village.
However, we needed money to buy the monitors for the assembled computers. To meet the need we approached the communities that were ready to buy the monitors, interested about the technology, ready to manage the network and make it sustainable. Most of the communities we approached were very helpful for implementing the project in their villages. However, during the second phase of the project, which was the peak time of the political crisis in Nepal, some of the villagers were often reluctant to participate due to fears of violence from the government soldiers and the Maoists rebels. Therefore we had implemented the project in the villages that were ready to take risk and very much interested to use the technology.
2.3 Regulatory and Legal Challenges
The political instability had been a major obstacle for setting up the wireless network. First, the autocratic rule of the king created a situation in which importing and using wireless networking equipment was severely restricted. Therefore acquiring wireless equipment from abroad was extremely difficult and risky. Second, conflict in rural Nepal had made work extremely difficult because we had to face threats of closure by the Maoist rebels. The communist rebels were very suspicious with the network that we were building in the villages. Somehow they provided permission to set up the network. However, they were closely monitoring our wireless networking activities.
At that situation we had decided to “smuggle’ all the wireless equipment with the help of international volunteers from the USA, Canada and Singapore to build the network. After the equipment were smuggled into the country, it was difficult to carry the equipment to the villages because there were many military checkpoints all over the places.
After the restoration of democracy in Nepal, we did strong lobbying along with the Internet Service Provider Association of Nepal and organizations working in the field of information technology to deregulate the import and use of the Industrial, Scientific and Medical Bands (2.4010-2.4730 GHz and 5.7250-5.8500 GHz). I gave several power point presentations to the Members of Parliament (MP’s) and the government bureaucrats. We put forward the following recommendations to Nepal Government to bring liberal ICT .
De-license 2.4010-2.4730 GHz and 5.7250-5.8500 GHz bands (ISM bands) and make it license free to import and to use without paying any additional fee.
Make VoIP free at least to make call from computer to computer and computer to landline telephone of Nepal Telecom.
Bring liberal ICT policies by decreasing the high license fee that is being imposed to the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) so that small business entrepreneurs can also start ISP companies and provide cheaper Internet services.
Provide subsidy to community based organizations that are interested to establish Community Internet Service Provider (CISP) companies in each district headquarter of Nepal using VSAT technology for Internet connection and use wireless technology to extend the network to the remote villages of the district.
As a result Nepal Government de-licensed the 2.4 GHz and 5.8 GHz bands after our hard lobbying for more than a month. Moreover, the government has recently made a policy to help small business entrepreneurs become a Rural Internet Service Provider (RISP) by bringing the license fee from several thousands dollars to about three dollars (US). Because of this policy there are several businesses working right now to bring the Internet services in the rural areas.
Right now we are lobbying for legalizing VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) in Nepal. After the announcement of the Ramon Magsaysay Award, I was invited by the parliamentary committee of Nepal to give my views on the VoIP issues. I told the committee that the telemedicine program, the teleteaching program and making calls using Yahoo messenger, Skype or Google Talk would be illegal if VoIP is not legalized. I told that if the government makes the VoIP free, telephone services will be very cheap for the people living in the remote areas. Theoretically, the government has agreed for this demand, however, they are still working on some issues before they make it free.
2.4 Management Challenges
Above all, making a project financially sustained is the biggest challenges. For this to happen, a good management system is required. This is something that all the donor agencies want to make sure before they provide money for any project. In order to make the project financially sustained, we have made a management plan, which are as follows.
The Nepal Wireless Networking Project at present is a public enterprise because it is owned and run by a community high school. It is managed by an elected school management committee of 7 members that meets regularly and makes policy decisions to run the school including the projects it runs. Nepal Wireless Networking Project is just one of the several projects started by the school for producing incomes locally.
In order to make the project run smoothly in the rural areas, the project uses an organization structure in which many community stakeholders are involved, including local schools, local governments and local businesses. This allows an avenue for democratic participation as well as risk and profit sharing.
For making the project financially sustainable, it has created a system where the communication centers collect all of the revenues from end users, while the project as a whole charge the centers a reduced rate for access to the Internet and the telephone services. So far the communication centers are paying their bills to the project for connectivity and are making just enough money to pay for the operational cost of the community communication centers.
3. Lessons Learned
Many lessons were learned from the Nepal Wireless Networking Project that may be of use to others interested parties undertaking similar projects. We will share these lessons in two parts: First, those of a technical nature and, second, those of a more practical nature.
3.1 Technical Lessons: Through our project, we learned several lessons about the technical aspects of setting up and installing a community wireless network. These include the following:
• The capability of 802.11b devices exceed more than manufacturer specification: Many 802.11b wireless devices exceed manufacturer specifications if it is deployed in the remote areas where there are no interferences, and there is a clear line of sight between two network points. In our pilot test, we found that an indoor access point rated to reach 300 meters outdoor had a range over 30 kilometers with a homemade mesh dish antenna at 2Mbps connection speed.
• Device is susceptible to weather: Some wireless devices are susceptible to weather and lightening. While the weather of Nepal is quite harsh and lightening is very common during spring season, we had lost some radios due to bad weather. Good grounding procedures are required to reduce the loss.
• Wi-fi device is useful for delivering services other than just connecting to the Internet: People around the world are using the wireless devices mostly for connecting Internet at their homes. The project has learned that the technology can be useful much more than people have probably thought of. The project has tested that the technology can be very useful for delivering telemedicine, and tele-teaching programs within an Intranet. Also the wireless network can be used to provide telephone services to remote mountain villages, where services from telephone companies can’t reach, at much cheaper cost and easier way.
• Long-range network must have to have strong backbone: When setting up a long-range network above 15 km far, it is essential to have a strong backbone with reliable equipment. In our case, the equipment that we have used for the backbone is the 2.4 GHz and 5.7 GHz Motorola Canopy even if it is much more expensive than Wi-fi equipment.
• Little training is required for setting up a Wi-fi network: Our experience tells that one does not have to be trained IT professional or college graduate to install Wi-fi wireless network. None of our Nepal team member or international volunteers had experience setting up a wireless network when the project began. Now even the village team members with little formal education can setup and maintain the network.
• Management and technical training should be provided to local people: Project needs to use local expertise or local capable individuals to help maintain the technical aspect of the network. Having their involvement is critical to the technical sustainability.
• Addressing and Routing should be done using hostnames: Our experiences say that using HOSTNAMES with DHCP and DNS is preferable to using static addressing for a big network. Furthermore, using a consistent routing system from the beginning allows the network to grow quickly.
• Manuals and documents should be maintained well: Network manager needs to keep manuals for every piece of equipment in a central location. Having an equipment inventory would be a good idea. It is necessary to maintain backup of the configurations for all devices and computers. Making notes of every failed experiment is very important.
3.2 Practical Lessons: These lessons are of a more practical nature and address the use of the network in a social environment.
• Wireless network can be a very useful alternative communication means in emergency situations: Wireless community networks can be very useful when other means of communication (landline and mobile phones, radios, etc) are not working. On February 1, 2005, the king declared the state of emergency in Nepal around 10 AM. Soon after that all the telephone services, Internet services, FM stations, televisions, and newspapers in Nepal were shut down for indefinite period. However, the network of Nepal Wireless Networking Project was running even during that period. Villagers that were in the service area were able to communicate each other through VoIP phone services. They could also send/get messages between the villages through the network.
• The number of users grows fast: The project has found that young people can quickly learn how to use the Internet, and play games from their friends. We have found that it will take weeks or months, not years, for villagers who had never used computers before to write e-mails, chat online, to play games, and to share ideas using computers. It just happens if it is available even in the remote areas.
• Occasional training for the users should be organized: We found an imperative need to ensure that the users are kept fully trained to maximize the potentials offered by the network to the maximum number of villagers. Therefore occasional short-term refresher training programs in each of the villages is needed to keep the users up to date.
• Networking projects create job opportunities: The project has learned that even a small network can create several jobs in a developing country like Nepal, where very little jobs are available on the job market for college graduates.
• Networking projects help to reduce poverty: We have learned from our trial local e-commerce program that wireless networks help people to sell local products in local market easily. The villagers can find the market price of their products easily from the Internet. The information on the market price will help them to get fair price for their product. It will thus help to reduce poverty in developing countries.
4. Current Projects and Future Plans
There are several communities across Nepal asking for help to set up the wireless network in their areas. We are also trying to convince the government to build an information highway using wireless technology across Nepal. The work is in progress in a district called Makawanpur. The following is the satellite map of the area where we are working now.
With the support from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the project is going to expand the existing network of Myagdi districts to 10 more villages by the end of October. For this project, ITU is providing radios, solar panels, and other networking gears.
While we are happy of our successes to date, we also realize that there are many areas where we can improve the network. We would like to concentrate on the following areas as we move forward.
Replicate the wireless network through out the country: The project has already gotten request from four districts of Nepal for help to set up the wireless network. We are also working with several Members of Parliament to build wireless network in seventeen districts of Nepal to provide the services to the rural people. For that, we have made a master plan and have submitted it to the National Planning Commission of Nepal.
Provide additional resources needed for the tele-teaching installation: The present plan is to make live tele-teaching a viable educational opportunity for students in the community. While we have invested in some of the necessary technology, further work and investment is needed to reach a point where the live tele-teaching works effectively helping to address the shortage of qualified teachers. The major investment that will be required for tele-teaching is buying LCD projectors, faster computers for each classroom, and better audio-video conferencing equipment.
Organize training programs for interested people to help replicate the network: Several people have shown their interests to replicate such network in their districts. In order to encourage people to replicate the project in different parts of Nepal, training programs will be organized in different parts of the country. For the training purpose, a handbook in simple Nepali language has already been published.
Develop a formal web application dedicated to the purposes of tele-medicine: Another important plan is to develop a simple web portal that contains the followings inside a single instance of a web browser: This work is in progress now.
• Two video windows, one of each peer
• A two-way text chat window, for exchange of prescriptions, diagnoses
• An information/status window filled by the server providing information to each endpoint about the status of the connection and the name and VoIP phone extension of the remote party.
• A link to call a remote party via VoIP software phone client.
The Nepal Wireless Networking project started with a dream, and the initial dream has now become true. However, we have long way to go to make it really useful for rural communities. Considering the very unfavorable political circumstances that includes the autocratic rule of the king, and Maoist insurgency in which it was implemented, the project was quite revolutionary and has received attention from around the world. We consider the following to be our main successes:
• Extending access to the wealth of information and global communication available on the Internet to an area where few thought was possible.
• Successfully piloting new technologies such as telemedicine, tele-teaching and local e-commerce for helping the rural population.
• Creating information and communication related business opportunities in the rural area.
• Making every effort possible to adapt technologies to the local context.
• Maintaining the character of a grassroots, volunteer-run organization and working on to develop the project to a profit making business step by step.
As Nepal stands on the horizon of a bright new political future, we are appealing to government to institute liberal policies that will help grass root projects to help bring the promise of information technology to all. We are quite optimistic that our next dream to replicate the network through out Nepal will also come true.
A 2007 Magsaysay awardee Mahabir Pun presented this paper at the 2007 Magsaysay Awardees’ Lecture Series, Magsaysay Center, Manila, 29 August 2007. Courtesy of Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation..
Posted by Editor on September 25, 2007 1:19 AM