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TECH REVIEW: WIRELESS
Wi-Fi is Aiming for the Masses
Asia‘s executives are familiar with the spread of Wi-Fi hot spots across the region’s bustling business districts. But the real revolution is happening far from the glitz–in the developing world


By Jeremy Wagstaff/JAKARTA
Issue cover-dated June 17, 2004


FORGET THE UBIQUITOUS Wi-Fi hot spots spreading across Asia’s coffee shops and airport lounges. The real wireless revolution is happening in the developing world, where roads and telephones are basic, rare, or nonexistent.

Take, for example, the inhabitants of a nest of villages in the northeastern corner of Cambodia. They’re about as remote as you’re likely to get in Southeast Asia: Two hours’ bumpy ride to the nearest town, itself a 16-hour car and ferry ride from the capital Phnom Penh should you miss the frequently cancelled twice-weekly flight. Now, thanks to a United States-based company called First Mile Solutions and a former American journalist called Bernard Krisher, a motorbike equipped with a computer and a Wi-Fi access point passes through the villages daily. Once in range of an antenna stuck on the village school wall, it uploads outgoing e-mail messages wirelessly from a computer inside the school. Incoming messages are simultaneously sent the other way.

There’s another part of the revolution that former U.S. military bomb loader Lee Thorn is busy implementing in neighbouring Laos: Remote villages all over the developing world can use Wi-Fi, the wireless standard of communication also called 802.11, to get better prices for their produce–from crops at the market in the next valley to the traditional textiles they sell over the Internet. For five hamlets 100 kilometres north of the Laotian capital of Vientiane, that’s already happening via a network of bicycle-powered computers linked to the Internet by a simple dial-up modem in the local hospital. But most important, it also gives the villagers something even more useful: A telephone link to each other using a simple protocol called Voice over Internet, or VoIP. “We think that just by getting information on the prices of key crops from market towns the economic impact of this . . . will be huge,” says Thorn.

In corners of Asia, away from the bustling business districts, a loose array of activists, entrepreneurs and former dotcommers is cobbling together ad-hoc Wi-Fi networks using whatever suits the environment, from bicycles and sonar panels to power computers, to motorbikes, buses, bullock carts and bicycles, to carry connections where such means are cheaper than installing the infrastructure needed for a network that’s always connected. What they offer villages and poorer urban neighbourhoods are connections to the Internet, to local government, to expert medical assistance, to market prices, to relatives overseas, or just a cheap phone call to a neighbouring village cut off by monsoon rains. Consider it a technological leapfrog without wires.

Wi-Fiis not a particularly new technology. In the past two years, Wi-Fi access points, or hot spots, have sprung up across Asian cities. But only now is it coming into its own. For one thing, it’s an open standard, meaning there are few if any royalties to pay for using it. Secondly, it’s relatively easy to set up. But most importantly, it’s cheap–and getting cheaper. Now, $70 buys you an all-in-one access point, router and built-in processor. Plug that into a cable modem or other Internet connection and you are an instant Wi-Fi Internet service provider. No other equipment, including computer, is necessary. It’s the drop in prices in the past couple of years that has put Wi-Fi within everyone’s reach, and suddenly makes building whole networks feasible. “Prices have really fallen,” says Bona Simanjuntak, an Indonesian educator who managed to stretch a single Wi-Fi project grant of $3,000 to cover two projects by searching for cheap equipment.

The result is fast-growing Wi-Fi networks that turn local projects into virtually national ones. Krisher, in his 70s, says he is now moving beyond the limited goal of a small cluster of village networks. Next month he plans to almost double the number of schools connected by adding another 10 schools in Pailin in southwestern Cambodia, and another 10-20 later this year. “Ultimately we hope to have 150 schools linked,” he says in a recent e-mail from the field. In India, similar projects have also taken off under the name DakNets–Dak being Hindi for “postal”–connecting villages using whatever transport is available, from bicycles to buses. Villagers use the connection to communicate with relatives overseas, local officials or doctors via e-mail, voice or even Webcam.

Bridging a Gap
It’s not always about hooking up the rural poor to the Internet and phones. In urban Indonesia, phone access is not so much of a problem. Falling prices of second-hand cellphones and the availability of low-denomination prepaid phone-cards have meant that few households on heavily populated islands like Java are far from a phone. But that’s not much help for students and other people looking for Internet access: Fixed lines are still expensive, connections are poor and phone bills steep. Cable Internet access is still limited to the wealthier parts of the capital, Jakarta.

This means that while the Internet itself is within reach of the country’s 210 million people, it’s hampered by a gap in what’s known as the “last mile”–the connection between the local provider and the end user. That’s where people like a former university professor, Onno Purbo, have stepped in, building their own wireless networks by adding stronger antennas to indoor Wi-Fi equipment and sticking them on rooftops. Already, Purbo says, he and his colleagues have built nearly 10,000 nodes across Java and southern Sulawesi, and are adding up to 300 more a month. That amounts to 1 million subscribers, and 22 networks in Jakarta alone. Suddenly, cheap and reliable Internet access is within reach of Indonesia’s urban poor. “Basically we bypass the last mile,” he says.

That’s how a modest tourism college in a run-down suburb of east Jakarta has suddenly found itself hooked up to fast Internet connections, giving students the opportunity to research on-line, to continue courses even when they are training in other parts of the country, and for staff to earn extra money moonlighting as travel agents or computer technicians. The local brains behind it, 25-year old Bona Simanjuntak, has already covered most of the running costs of the business by selling bandwidth to nearby Internet cafes and homes via the same Wi-Fi mast that juts into the sky above the college’s main courtyard. His boss, college chief A. Bukhaeri, beams proudly as Simanjuntak draws diagrams of the network he has built. “What we have here is a chance to grow our minds,” he says.

Of course, there are problems. Wi-Fi is easy enough to install, requiring no cable-laying or huge infrastructure costs, but it has its weaknesses. Antennas must be within line of sight of each other, and don’t work well through vegetation. Tanzanian consultant and entrepreneur Robi Machabi recently told a seminar on rural Internet access inStockholm of his problems connecting his Internet service provider, JuaNet, across the vast Serengeti plains, where line-of-sight links were hampered by the curvature of the earth. In Jakarta, Simanjuntak’s connection to his Internet source in southern Jakarta was interrupted by the construction of an office block in the signals’ path.

And while such networks don’t have the problem of cables being eaten, severed or damaged, they are hostage to other elements: Simanjuntak’s Wi-Fi mast is the tallest structure in the area, rendering it vulnerable to lightning strikes, one of which fried some of his equipment late last month. On the remote Pacific island of Niue, Internet entrepreneur Richard St. Clair was able to track the approach of Cyclone Heta earlier this year via the Internet, but then had to dismantle as much as he could of the island’s Wi-Fi network as the storm neared land. Most of the equipment, in storm-proof containers, survived and he was able to reinstate the network. Meanwhile, the local telecommunications provider was still retrieving its satellite dish, which had blown a quarter of a mile away and resembled, in St. Clair’s words, “a giant twisted, crumpled beer can.” Now, five months later, the world’s first Wi-Fi nation is back on-line.

Legal Problems, Too
Then there are the legal problems. Telecoms companies aren’t happy about losing business, which means VoIP is strictly circumscribed in countries like Indonesia. Even Wi-Fi connections, which use the 2.4 gigahertz frequency, are tightly regulated in Indonesia, leaving most of Onno Purbo’s outdoor connections on the wrong side of the law. Purbo says he is often fending off government officials trying to take down his antennas and confiscate equipment, though in most cases he’s able to talk them out of it. “To solve this problem we usually just given them $10 whenever they come,” he says.

And sometimes the legal problems merge into the political. Thorn’s village project in Laos has run into problems with defence officials who, he says, have stopped the project going live on national security grounds. In a telephone interview Thorn says that while he hopes the situation can be resolved, his board may instruct him to take the project elsewhere if the stalemate is not resolved this month. It’s a reflection, he says, of the broader implications of connecting people. “People sense it could have fairly important changes in the villages and to understand all that ahead of time is pretty hard to do,” he says.

Write to Jeremy Wagstaff at jw@jeremywagstaff.com