The Postman Always Pings Twice: A Bus Brings lnternet to the Developing World
For those of us who thought this page took a little too long to load, a bus may not seem like the best way to transport data between your home computer and the internet. But if you live in a far-flung village off the grid, that option sure beats walking dozens or perhaps hundreds of kilometers to the nearest hot spot. That's the thinking behind United Villages, a US company that helps villagers in India, Cambodia, Rwanda, Costa Rica and Paraguay send email, search the internet, check voicemail and shop on eBay—all without the need for expensive infrastructure, even electricity. They rely instead on what is essentially a digital pony express, a hot spot on wheels: users do their internet tasks offline on a donated neighborhood computer until a local bus or motorcycle rolls by, its on-board mobile access point wirelessly collecting data from the computer. Upon return to the nearest large town or city, the vehicle sends and receives data to the internet via wired network or satellite. And then the loop continues, back to the village to transmit and receive more data. Computer and antenna are solar-powered; the vehicle is on a route it would already be traveling. It's an elegant, efficient and sustainable idea, and it's one that sees the developing world as the "first mile" on the road to the internet, not the last.
The drive-by internet system, known as DakNet, began in India, where United Villages operates its largest network. By licensing the hardware and software from United Villages, other organizations have brought DakNet to about 110,000 people in other parts of the developing world (see a media timeline here). Though the company is run for-profit, based in offices in Cambridge, Mass. and New Delhi, its goal is to help others, and its sights are higher than the internet. As CEO Amir Hasson tells the Brisbane Times:
Our mission is to provide 2 billion villagers with a digital identity, which includes an email address, a phone number and a stored value card - basically, the beginning of a bank account, a debit card.
Users pay for the service through such cards, which are sold locally and cost about one rupee each (2 US cents).
Such a "first mile" email postal service can also help develop local skills by training village teams about wireless networking and empowering them to maintain and upgrade the network themselves. The company also helps users get online by offering "infopacks" to guide those who are not internet-savvy to important websites.
Here's how the network looks in Kigali.
But what about the serious lag time between when the bus rolls through the village and returns with new emails, bulletin board messages and so on? Already, the company pushes data to each "kiosk" that it predicts users will want, such as local news, cricket scores and information on agriculture and Bollywood. Anyway, explains Hasson,
What we've found is if you had only one computer for the whole village, real-time communications don't make as much sense because 98 per cent of the time the person you want to talk to is not at the computer - Rajeev is out in the field planting.
Currently, Hasson is working on expanding the Indian bus-network beyond its current 25 villages and is seeking partners to bring the idea to far-flung parts of China, Nigeria and Australia. In central and western China, where a good portion of the population has never seen a web page, and where illiteracy is on the rise, internet access is a crucial way to improve awareness of civil rights, connect farmers with businesses, enhance peoples' political and social voice and provide better access to information about, for instance, environmental disasters.
Even if you think that plans to provide computers and internet to the world's poorest are mislaid--United Villages was an outgrowth of a course at MIT, where the $100 laptop was also developed--it's hard to deny that internet access is a great thing, bringing with it access to information, learning and new opportunities.
And it's just as hard to disagree with Hasson's combination of idealism and profit motives. Without good economics behind it, he says, such a network is "not sustainable, it's not scaleable, it's not going to make an impact." It's not hard to see how the impact of ideas like this, which are made to spread information--and to spread the very idea--could be immeasurable.
Not that different from the internet itself.