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Pedal-powered Internet project to bring Laos village online

Thursday, February 13, 2003

BAN PHON KHAM, Laos -- Villagers in this remote jungle hamlet have lived for years without electricity or telephones, relying on occasional visitors and a sluggish postal system for news of the outside world.

But soon many of its residents will be jumping on stationary bikes to pedal their way onto the Information Superhighway.

Custom-built computers -- running on bicycle-powered generators -- will transport villagers from rice fields to chat rooms and Web sites worldwide. They'll be able to monitor rice and vegetable prices, sell handicrafts and e-mail relatives.

The project, expected to launch as early as this spring, gets around the lack of phone lines through a clever application of the increasingly popular WiFi technology, which is used to wirelessly connect laptops, handhelds and other devices elsewhere.

For the first time, villagers will also be able to make phone calls, using Internet-based voice technologies. And because much of the project is built around nonproprietary, or "open source," software, villagers will essentially own the system.

Low-tech solutions

The project is the brainchild of the Jhai Foundation, a San Francisco aid organization started by Vietnam War veteran Lee Thorn.

The ingenious system -- not much different from a school science project -- comprises five computers built with discarded microchips.

They connect to the Internet with a radio network and are powered by hulking batteries attached to stationary bicycles imported from India. One minute of pedaling yields five minutes of power.

"In a country where the population is isolated ... it becomes necessary to think about decidedly low-tech solutions," said Andy Carvin of the Benton Foundation, a nonprofit organization that studies global Internet access.

Elsewhere, Carvin said, communities have turned to hand cranks and even cow manure where electricity is unavailable. He said the Lao project represents the latest of the "homegrown solutions."

The first of the computers is being set up in a freshly painted classroom of the local schoolhouse, a single-story concrete building in a clearing in the center of the village.

All five will use WiFi to send data wirelessly to a central radio transmitter and antenna dish at the school. From there, microwave signals will be zapped to a treetop antenna on a nearby mountain ridge and routed to a dial-up Internet account at a nearby hospital, which has two of the region's few phone lines.

Though the bikes will power much of the system, the relay stations will have solar panels.

Students in Phon Kham will be trained to use the system and teach older villagers.

The network, designed and built for about $19,000 plus donated labor, will cost about $21 a month to operate, Thorn said.

Central to the network is the Jhai PC, a plastic-encased computer smaller than a laptop and built to withstand the punishing heat and monsoon rains of the Lao countryside. The units were built by Lee Felsenstein, inventor of the world's first portable computer.

Because the equipment was customized, last-minute technical glitches forced a delay in the project's launch, originally scheduled for this week.

Settled in 1975 by refugees who fled U.S. bombing over Laos during the Vietnam War, Phon Kham has been a quiet haven for the likes of Pahn Vongsengthong, a 78-year-old retired rice farmer.

Like many other villagers, Pahn has family scattered around the globe.

"The first thing is that I miss my daughters," said Pahn, who lives in a simple thatch-roof farmhouse and has never used a computer. "Whenever I miss them, I will be able to walk down the road and talk to them" through a computer.

Tavee Pulaimchit, 60, the village's chief, said the high-tech outpost will help residents compete for lucrative contracts from businesses elsewhere in Laos, one of the world's poorest countries.

"This village is isolated from the bigger towns and cities," he said, "and we need to keep in contact with the markets there."


On the Net:

Jhai Foundation: http://www.jhai.org


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