BY STEPHEN RUTH
If one were setting up a rural wireless project in a developing nation nearly all site options would be easier than the rugged upper mountains of central Nepal, near the famous 27 thousand foot Annapurna range. Yet a very small, dedicated cadre from the remote village of Nangi began a process over a decade ago that has resulted in a flourishing, not-for-profit wireless service for more than a hundred villages in thirteen districts, and dozens of schools, hospitals, rural clinics, trekking lodges, weather stations, and others. In 2009, it was successful enough to be chartered by the government as Nepal Wireless, a fully authorized rural Internet Service Provider (ISP), and continues to be an international model for deploying high grade wireless services (internet, telephone, telemedicine, tele-teaching, local e-commerce, etc.) in rural areas. Through a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to my GMU unit, the International Center for Applied Studies in Information Technology (ICASIT), I was able to give initial financial support and continuing advice to this fledgling project and it has been a pleasure to watch it grow and prosper. ICASIT has supported about two-dozen technology projects all over the world1 through Mellon grants but none have been as successful as Nepal Wireless. Rural Information and Communications Technology (ICT) projects in developing nations are notoriously risky–only about 15 percent succeed, most fall far short of their goals and about 30 percent fail completely.2
This article is about the strategic vision of Mahabir Pun, from Nangi village, and his ability to bring wireless technology to an inhospitable region, achieving some unheard-of technical and managerial results along the way. For his work on this project Pun was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2007, often dubbed the “Asian Nobel Prize” for community development, and an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from University of Nebraska. After Pun’s 2008 visit to George Mason University, Dr. Alan Merten, GMU’s president, said, “Mahabir Pun is an inspiration for us all, bringing wireless services to one of the poorest regions in the world and setting an example for both developed and developing nations.”
Nepal’s temperatures in winter can be numbing in the mountains and the nation’s level of development is low by the world’s standards. With a population of about 30 million, Nepal is in the lowest quintile by most measures. Also, Nepal has been only gradually emerging from a decade-long civil war with the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) followed by a tumultuous transition from a monarchy to a republic that culminated in the election of a president in 2008. Nangi, where Nepal Wireless originated, is a Himalayan farming village with a population of eight hundred at an elevation of 7,300 feet, in the mountains of west central Nepal, close to the Dhaulagiri and Annapurna ranges. The closet large town is Beni, a six to eight hour hike through mountain terrain. Even today there are not many automated tools or machines available in Nangi and most agriculture is based on the use of oxen and mules for plowing and hauling.
THE INITIAL APPROACH
In 2001, when Pun began to work out his dream for a rural wireless system, he had neither the equipment nor funds for the project. In those days it was illegal to import wireless equipment into Nepal so various volunteers recruited by Pun from outside the country brought in equipment for him, concealing it from authorities in their backpacks. Computer spare parts were pieced together in a wooden box, as shown below, in these early days.
As mentioned, this was also a time of great turmoil, with Maoist guerillas operating extensively in the rural areas of Nepal including Nangi. In 2001, Nangi’s Himanchal Higher Secondary School had neither Internet nor telephone service, just like the village itself. There are no tractors, electrical lines or other similar amenities, yet Pun and his helpers had a vision that it might be possible not only to connect Nangi, but also many others in the process. The diagram below shows the first connection, from Nangi to Pokhara, some 24 miles away.
EXTENDING THE NETWORK BEYOND NANGI
The basic idea was to connect the villages to two large cities, Pokhara and Kathmandu, where servers sometimes called “the backbone”, are linked to the worldwide Internet. The backbone is capable of providing services like VOIP, community bulletin boards, file sharing for teaching and maintenance, databases for other projects like the trading forum, video conferencing for tele-teaching and tele-medicine, and so on. The next sequential link from the backbone is relay stations high in the mountains, which beam the signals to their destination in the villages. One point-to-point transmission distance between relay stations is 42 kilometers (26 miles) and the village-to-village links varied between 2 and 18 kilometers. Some villages are also configured to act as relay stations. Over a three-week interval in the late summer of 2003, Pun and his team of Nepali teachers from local villages, along with volunteers from other countries, set up four relays on mountain tops. High capacity wireless grid antennas were required and Pun insisted on using top-level equipment, not hand-me downs. Positioning the antennas, access points and power-generating equipment was a challenge. Each one required moving the equipment a vertical distance of at least a mile since the villages were all high in the mountains. The picture below shows a typical relay station, at Khopra, with solar panels for electricity generation.
A year later more villages were added and with the availability of additional relay stations the network grew substantially. The table below shows the rapid progression of users through the current time.
Most of us are accustomed to Wi-Fi access in our homes, coffee shops, or in airports and schools. . But Wi-Fi technology—its international designation is IEEE 801.11x– has a well-known limitation in that signals can normally be propagated over a distance of only 500 to 1000 feet. Yet Pun and his volunteer advisors (from USA, Europe and Nepal) used a powerful directional antenna and propagated signals over a line of sight (LOS) distance of 26 miles or more. Pun recently wrote me this reminiscence, reflecting on the technological breakthrough:
“Once we made the 34 KM long link using the simple Dlink device, many people still did not believe it… No telecommunication engineer from Singapore and the US whom I talked to thought that we would be able to do it… However, we made it work”
For the backhaul links to the relay stations, high performance devices manufactured by Motorola and Alvarion were selected and the frequencies of 2.4 GHz and 5.8 GHz were picked because they belong to a category called “unlicensed”; that is, unconstrained by government frequency allocation restrictions. The equipment for the transmissions from the villages to the relay stations, sometimes called “last mile” connections, was a varied mixture that was purchased in order to take full advantage of pricing and compatibility, like EnGenius, Ubiquity, Deliberant, Mikrotik and TP Link etc. All the devices used the WiFi standards (IEEE 802-11 b/g), just as a US household or Starbucks patron would — but at drastically greater distances.
As more villages and schools were connected, the Nepal Wireless experiment began to attract international attention with coverage from the BBC, ABC News, PC Magazine, and The Sydney Morning Herald, and others. One article reported that a member of the Scottish Parliament, who learned of the success of the Nangi project, complained bitterly that five counties in the Scottish Highlands had poorer broadband service: “If Yak farmers in a Nepalese village can be afforded high-speed access to the web why can’t someone in Dunbeath”, he said.3
IMPACT AND SCOPE OF THE PROJECT: ACHIEVING THE ICT4D PARADIGM
In the development community ICT4D is a popular acronym for Information and Communication Technology for Development, with emphasis on the “D”, since outcomes are what matter, not simply installing equipment. So let’s examine the outcomes, the actual deliverables, ranging from e-learning and e-commerce to research collaboration.
First, Open Learning Exchange Nepal (OLE-Nepal) has made interactive learning modules available for grades 2-6 in English, Math, Science and Nepali along with an e-library for the villagers. There is also a health and agriculture Wiki and video-conferencing software for tele-teaching, possibly helping to alleviate the teacher shortage in the region.
Moreover, one of the early benefits for farmers was the ability to communicate and negotiate with the yak farm in the high mountains, a grueling two-day journey by treacherous foot paths from Nangi, for supplies and medicine. Farmers were able to find prices of crops, new agricultural techniques, and other important information through this system. Also, they could advertise their surplus products in the regional markets through a local e-commerce site created by the project.
Yet another positive impact of the project concerns medical applications. They are always much sought-after in ICT4D projects and tele-medicine was one of the earliest successes for Nepal Wireless. In 2006 the first teleconferencing connection between a village health worker and the hospital in Pokhara was established. Currently there are eight rural health centers connected to a hospital in Kathmandu as well, and that number will rise to thirteen in 2012. This service makes it possible to divert some of the medical assistance budget—facilities, etc—to other uses that can take advantage of the success of the telemedicine intervention, and save lives. In Nangi and Ramche villages in 2010 and 2011, for instance, three women with severe pregnancy-related illnesses and a young boy with a life-threatening head injury were successfully treated through tele-medicine intervention
As mentioned, one of the earliest applications for Nepal Wireless was connecting villagers to the regional commerce network, saving day-long hikes from one place to another. While the buying and selling of yaks is an important use of the e-commerce site, there is also active communication about other animals, such as goats and buffaloes, as well as local produce. Recently Nepal Wireless added sites for money transfer and virtual ATM services for mountain trekkers to pay the bills or get cash (Thamel.com). It is also developing an online booking system for the trekkers in the community lodges.
Technical sustainability is also very important. Not surprisingly, the developers of Nepal Wireless decided to develop an application for training of the specialists who manage the Wireless Internet Service Provider (WISP), including bandwidth management, IP sub-netting, line of sight calculation, link budget calculation, and other topics. There is also an application for basic computer training for villagers. Nepali language handbooks have been prepared for the local wireless technicians.
Finally, Nepal Wireless is also working with various researchers in and outside Nepal to facilitate data gathering on climate change, poacher movements and real time weather conditions. The problem of poachers is serious in Nepal and, in collaboration with the US-based Wild Land Security (http://wildlandsecurity.org), a system in the national parks is being developed to protect endangered animals by keeping track of suspected poachers’ movements. It is also helping to build air route monitoring systems for the domestic planes flying through narrow Himalayan valleys.
PROMISES AND CHALLENGES
What makes the Nepal Wireless program so unique? I think it’s because it has surmounted so many obstacles on the way to delivering a needed service to rural communities. The first of these obstacles was severe shortages of equipment, technical expertise and electrical power. The first connection–from Nangi to Pokhara– belongs in Ripley’s Believe It or Not—34 kilometers using just a 60 milliwatt transmitter!4 There have been continuous challenges every year, each solved in sequence, resulting in a flourishing rural wireless network.
Financial challenges have been an integral part of Nepal Wireless’s life from the start. An early problem was high network tariffs. And there were severe restrictions on importing wireless network equipment, plus impossibly high costs levied on licenses for ISP operation. For example, in the early days, the ISP’s charged almost USD 2,500 per month for a 1 Mbps link. So the project was forced to use dial-up service until this was adjusted. Today the monthly cost is USD 500 per Mbps, which, while expensive, still gives 5 Mbps service to a hundred twenty villages. There is a revenue stream from paying customers, and generous donors continue to offer help, but the situation is always delicate. Now there is a special web site aimed at getting worldwide financial support called “Donate One Dollar a Month to help Build Wireless Broadband Highway in Rural Nepal”.5
But the greatest obstacles have been political, not electrical. Over the time of the Nepal Wireless creation there were many dismaying events– the assassination of several members of the royal family, Maoist guerilla uprisings, the deposing of the king, and finally a shaky but apparently durable new democracy. At one time, the Maoist guerillas actually demanded a large amount of money as a “donation” and threatened to shut down the wireless network and relay stations, calling the wireless group “reactionary agents.” But the Nepal Wireless team kept working to expand the network, even though some of the people in the villages feared that the Maoists might retaliate.
Nepal Wireless is a success story through and through and has been recognized internationally as a model that can be emulated in dozens of developing nations. Not a bad outcome for a project that started with computers assembled in wooden boxes using recycled parts.
Stephen Ruth is a Professor of Public Policy at Mason and the Director of the International Center for Applied Studies in Information Technology (ICASIT)
- For examples, see maps and summaries at icasit.org [↩]
- S. Ruth and S. Doh, (2007).”Is E Government Ready for Prime Time?” IEEE Internet Computing 11(1) January-February 2007, 82 [↩]
- Farrell, Nick, Nepal better than Scottish highlands for broadband. The Inquirer. May 28 2004 [↩]
- S. Ruth and R. Schware (2008).”Pursuing Genuinely Successful e–Government Projects: Mission Impossible?” Journal of E Government Policy and Regulation (32) 2 (2009), 93-98 [↩]
- More information at nepalwireless.net [↩]