What do you do when you want to do a little business, and you have no telephones, no electricity and an impassable road? Noy Chanthavong and her neighbors in Phon Kham village in rural Laos asked Jhai Foundation (www.jhai.org and www.jhaicoffee.com) to help them get connected to the world wide web. Noy and her neighbors want voice and written communications with overseas relatives at affordable rates. They want access to price information for rice, vegetables, and woven goods in market towns and to get education on computers and the internet for their kids. They also want the ability to send spreadsheets and written bids to clients for small construction jobs, the ability to call the doctor, and a free way to talk with friends in neighboring villages.
As reported in The Economist and the New York Times Magazine (see both articles below), Jhai Foundation will launch its rugged, pedal-powered, wireless-connected Jhai computer and communications system in Phon Kham village, Hin Heup District, Vientiane Province, Lao PDR, on February 13, at noon. You are most welcome to come.
Why? In the remote areas of rural Laos villagers lack connectivity. There are no good roads, no electricity, no telephones, and certainly no email. People from one such village, Phon Kham, along with four of its neighbors, have told the Jhai Foundation www.jhai.org that this connectivity is what they need. They want it for a variety of reasons: to contact relatives oversees and in the capital, to better coordinate cooperative economics, to get up-to-date commodity price information, and to gather information to improve their business techniques.
How? For the pilot project, the Jhai Foundation is building an 802.11b wireless computer network to link the five villages with each other and the internet, providing email, voice-over-IP telephony, and telephone access. The network will link five ultra-rugged Jhai computers and printers in each village whose power requirements in various configurations have been measured at less 20 watts – which allows the systems to be powered by a battery charged by stationary bicycle. The Jhai Foundation is also localizing the Linux-based KDE Graphical Desktop and productivity resources, allowing for communications, word processing, and simple spreadsheets, all in the Lao language.
Stage one of the process is a single village launch, connecting Phon Kham Village to the network as a demonstrator for the other villages in the proposed network. We expect to launch the entire five-village network before the rainy season, which starts in May.
What? The Remote IT Village pilot test will link five villages in the Hin Heup District, Vientiane Province, in a wireless Wide-Area Network (WAN). Villagers will use Voice-over-I.P. telephony and Lao-language business tools to improve their standard of living while preserving traditions. The network will immediately enhance business and trade opportunities for organic rice and produce in market towns and the capital, Vientiane, and the establishment of a local market for sales of a variety of products among villagers themselves. Villagers will also connect by voice and email with family members who now live overseas.
Who? Noted hardware developer Lee Felsenstein and networking specialist Mark Summer, are working with a 10 person Jhai Foundation team. Vorasone Dengkayaphichith, one of Laos’ leading IT experts, coordinates project implementation. Anousak Souphavanh of IBM heads the localization of the open source KDE desktop and other tools. Lee Thorn, chair of Jhai Foundation, manages.
Jhai Foundation, an American 501(c)3 non-profit, reconciliation organization, was begun in 1997 by Mr. Thorn, a bomb-loader during the American war in Laos, and Bounthanh Phommasathit, a Lao refugee from the American bombing. Currently, Jhai Foundation works in 20 villages in Lao PDR. on technology, a weaving initiative, and an organic coffee initiative. Jhai’s four Internet Learning Centers have implemented a financially sustainable model for educational and community-based computing. The Economist and The New York Times magazine feature our project. The Swedish representative has nominated this project as ‘best practices’ to the Secretariat of the UN.
When? Noon, 13 February, Phon Kham Village, Hip Heup District, Vientiane Province, Lao PDR
Please also see FAQ and other information at www.jhai.org to answer questions you might have. New York Times magazine and the Economist stories follow …
Making the Web world-wide Sep 26th 2002 From The Economist print edition
A Project In Laos Is Giving Internet Access To Villagers Without Electricity
"THE creation of the PC is the best thing that ever happened," said Bill Gates at a conference on "digital dividends" in 2000. He even wondered if it might be possible to make computers for the poor in countries without an electric power grid. The answer is yes, and things are going even further. Villagers in a remote region of Laos that has neither electricity nor telephone connections are being wired up to the Internet.
Lee Thorn, the head of the Jhai Foundation, an American-Lao organisation, has been working for nearly five years in the Hin Heup district. The foundation has helped villagers build schools, install wells and organise a weaving co-operative. But those villagers told Mr Thorn that what they needed most was access to the Internet. To have any hope of meeting that need, in an environment which is both physically harsh and far removed from technical support, Mr Thorn realised that a robust computer was the first requirement.
He therefore turned to engineers working with the Jhai Foundation, who devised a machine that has no moving, and few delicate, parts. Instead of a hard disk, the Jhai PC relies on flash-memory chips to store its data. Its screen is a liquid-crystal display, rather than an energy-guzzling glass cathode-ray tube-an exception to the rule that the components used are old-fashioned, and therefore cheap. (No Pentiums, for example, just a 486-type processor.) Mr Thorn estimates that, built in quantity, each Jhai PC would cost around $400. Furthermore, because of its simplicity, a Jhai PC can be powered by a car battery charged with bicycle cranks-thus removing the need for a connection to the grid.
Wireless Internet cards connect each Jhai PC to a solar-powered hilltop relay station which then passes the signals on to a computer in town that is connected to both the Lao phone system (for local calls) and to the Internet. Meanwhile, the Linux-based software that will run the computers is in the final stages of being "localised" into Lao by a group of expatriates in America.
One thing that the new network will allow villagers to do is decide whether it is worth going to market. Phon Hong, the local market town, is 30km away, so it is worth knowing the price of rice before you set off to sell some there. Links farther afield may allow decisions about growing crops for foreign markets to be taken more sensibly-and help with bargaining when these are sold. And there is also the pleasure of using Internet telephony to talk to relatives who have gone to the capital, Vientiane, or even abroad.
If it works, the Jhai PC and its associated network could be a widespread success. So far, the foundation has had expressions of interest from groups working in Peru, Chile and South Africa. The prototype should be operational in Laos this December and it, or something very much like it, may soon be bridging the digital divide elsewhere as well.
Picture this: A remote farmer in the dirt-poor country of Laos wants to check some e-mail. So he goes to the only computer in his village. (It’s bolted to the floor of a public building, to prevent theft.) He brings a friend along — not to Web-surf with him, but to pedal a bicycle-driven generator that powers the computer. When they’ve cranked out enough juice, they can log onto the Web, using a jury-rigged set of wireless antennae. It’s a clunky system made out of spare parts, but when it goes live next year, it will become the newest way to hook up the developing world: the pedal-powered Internet.
The Laotian farmers hatched the scheme this year while talking with development workers from the Jhai Foundation, a San Francisco nonprofit group. Laos is a brutal place to farm, littered with Vietnam-era unexploded ordnance and racked by a dusty dry season. The farmers figured that the Web would help them track weather movements and price swings in rice, allowing them to optimize the scanty profits from their crops. ”And they all want to keep in touch with their families,” says Lee Thorn, Jhai’s chairman. ”They all left the bombed villages, so these families are really isolated. There are people they haven’t had contact with for 25 years.”
There’s just one problem. How do you bring the Web to people who don’t have phone lines — or even electricity?
With a level of ingenuity that would have impressed Robinson Crusoe, it turns out. Thorn’s group is cobbling together five inexpensive computers with out-of-date microchips. To link these computers to the Internet, they’re using cheap wireless broadcasting stations — much like the ones that you can buy at Radio Shack for a few hundred dollars. A tower located in a Laotian city will tap into the Net and the local phone system, then blast the signal toward the villages nine miles away. A second tower will catch that signal and route it wirelessly to each village, like a hub with spokes. No expensive satellites or copper-wire phone lines needed. And as for electricity? That pedal-power technology is straight out of ”Gilligan’s Island.” ”It’s the same stuff I had on my bike when I was a kid, to power my headlight,” Thorn says.
Development groups are watching the project closely, and for good reason. With this strange Rube Goldberg contraption, the farmers will effectively leapfrog 100 years of technological evolution. This year, they’re living in the 19th century; next year, they’ll be in the 21st. Few have traveled so far using a bicycle.