Wireless Networks Open Up Nepal

For the laptop-toter checking e-mail on the run or while sipping a latte at Starbucks, Wi-Fi is a nice convenience. But for some Himalayan villagers in Nepal, a long-range wireless network is the only connection to the rest of the world.

Since late summer, an 802.11b wireless network has enabled a group of rural villages to send and receive POP mail and use a Web cam to teach high school classes over the villages' intranet. No roads span the distances between these villages, but now farmers looking to discuss trades can hold Net meetings rather than spending two days hiking across mountain terrain.

The inspiration for this project is Mahabir Pun, a native Nepali determined to bring better education and technology to his fellow villagers.

After spending two years writing three letters a day to American universities, Pun was accepted at the University of Nebraska at Kearney where he received a master's degree in 1992. He then returned to his small home village and, shortly after the village got electricity in 1998, set up its first high school computer lab. The lab's old Pentium systems were assembled from donated parts and ran Windows 95 or 98. But with no phone line, the villagers could not access the Internet.

In mid-August, Pun and a team of volunteers began the three-week process of constructing the wireless network connecting five villages that have populations of from 500 to 1,000. Robin Shields and Sage Radachowsky, who had been volunteer teachers in Pun's village, along with two undergrads from the University of California at Los Angeles, Mark Michalski and James Pearson, helped Pun set up the network.

Spanning the Distance

As if building a wireless network at elevations of more than 7,000 feet weren't difficult enough, each piece of equipment had to be hauled up a vertical mile to the mountain-top villages.

Twelve smartBridges air Point Pro Outdoor access points are connected to the dial-up ISP 22 miles away in Pokhara, the nearest city, which has a population of 95,000. Solar panels and wind generators provide power for five access points. The team bought the APs at manufacturer's cost for the project, and three more have since been donated for future use.

To span the several miles between villages, the access points use special high-powered (100 milliwatt compared with conventional 40 milliwatt) antennas. The antennas, Pacific Wireless PMANT24 24-dB-gain directional antennas, are designed specifically for 2.4-GHz systems and were also provided at manufacturer's cost. The project was partially funded by a grant from the Donald A. Strauss Scholarship Foundation.

In addition to the old Windows machines, none of which have more than 64MB of RAM, the computer lab also includes two iMacs running OS X and one Linux machine. The team chose to use JanaServer 2 because it's a free server for educational use, and it provides an Internet e-mail server, an internal HTTP server, and a proxy server. JanaServer 2 also allows remote management, which means no one has to trek to Pokhara to change a setting.

Modern Conveniences in the Mountains

"One of the goals we have for the network is to help the villages generate some more income," says Shields.

The high school receives minimal funding from the Nepal government and from private U.S. contributors, and most villagers are sustenance farmers with annual incomes of about $100. Before the wireless network was up and running, Pun and a few volunteers set up an e-commerce Web site (www.himalayanhandicraft.org) to sell handcrafted Nepali goods as a source of income for the schools.

Pun hopes that with more technology, the villagers will have better education opportunities. Shields, a graduate student at UCLA who taught English classes in Nangi, plans to teach a C++ course via e-mail so villagers can eventually outsource their technical skills. Students are already learning how to use Microsoft Word and Excel, basic DOS, and QuickBASIC. A VoIP system that will allow remote villages to call landline phones is under development.

The sparse trees and occasional mountain between the villages and Pokhara caused only minimal interference with the 802.11b signal, but a troublesome 11,000-foot peak required the team to use three relay stations to redirect the signals.

Next time you curse a thick wall in your apartment for blocking your Wi-Fi signal, just be thankful it's not a mountain.