News > Internet Village Motoman
'Digital Pony Express' Links up Cambodia
SIENGLE, Cambodia In this village on the edge of aprimordial forest, where the occasional ox cart creaks down the red-earth main street, townspeople were debating one recent afternoon what to say in their first e-mail transmission.
"I think we should send a message to the governor,asking for land titles," said Kim Seng, 53, who owns a mud-floor restaurant, as his wife listened from a hammock.
Conjuring up the power and prestige of a letter sent bycomputer, he added confidently, "The governor will pay attention to our issues."
Without wires for electricity or telephones, O Siengle, a village of about 800 people, has nevertheless joined the online world, taking part in a development project set up by an American benefactor to connect 13 rural schools to the Internet.
Since the system went into place in September at the new elementary school here in Cambodia's remote northeast corner, solar panels have been powering three computers.
Once a day, an Internet "Motoman" rides a re dmotorcycle slowly past the school. On the passenger seat is a gray metal box with a short fat antenna. The box holds a wireless Wi-Fi chip set that allows the exchange of e-mail between the box and computers. Briefly, this schoolyard of tree stumps and a hand-cranked water well becomes an Internet hot spot.
It is a digital pony express: Five Motomen ride their routes five days a week, downloading and uploading e-mail. The system, developed by First Mile Solutions,based in Boston, uses a receiver box powered by the motorcycle's battery. The driver need only roll slowlypast the school to download all the village's outgoing e-mail and deliver incoming e-mail. Newly collected information is stored for the day in a computer strapped to the back of the motorcycle. At dusk, the motorcycles converge on the provincial capital, Ban Lung, where an advanced school is equipped with a satellite dish,allowing a bulk e-mail exchange with the outside world.
The Motoman program is sponsored by American Assistance for Cambodia, a group based in Phnom Penh and run by Bernard Krisher, the Far Eastr epresentative of the Media Laboratory of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Media Lab gives technical advice to the Motoman program, which offers Third World schools a way to cut costs by sharing one dish and one uplink fee.
To some, the Motoman system is a cumbersome compromise, made necessary by a government that makes money through monopolies that inflate the prices of satellite dishes and uplink fees beyond the means of villages like O Siengle, where individual incomes average $1 a day.
"The 50 poorest countries in the world get more money from telephone access fees than anything else," said Nicholas Negroponte, a founding director of the Media Lab.
Negroponte, an advocate of an Internet bridge to rural Asia, spoke outside a computer-equipped, online school that he and his wife, Elaine, pay for west of O Siengle. But almost as he spoke, early this month, the police were raiding Internet cafˇs in Phnom Penh, confiscating equipment for making Internet telephone calls. The cafˇs charged as little as 5 cents a minute to call the United States, far below the government-mandated minimum of 96 cents for phone calls using conventional technology.
In Phnom Penh, dozens of Internet cafˇs offer access for 50 cents an hour, and 20 stores sell used computers imported from Japan. About 1,000 Netizens a day logon to the Web site of King Norodom Sihanouk, www.norodomsihanouk.info. A used desktop computer can be bought for about $30.
About 75 percent of Cambodia's 13 million people, though, live in rural areas, and smooth roads and utility lines usually stop at the edge of the provincial capital. The village of O Siengle, a collection of wooden houses on stilts, is emblematic of life for the millions of Asians who live on the unwired side of the digital divide.
The distance from this village to Ban Lung, the capital of Ratanakiri Province, is only about 30 kilometers, or 18 miles. But even in the dry season, it is a jolting two-hour ride in a jeep.
Users say the Motoman system is starting to change lives.
"It helps us with our diagnoses," Chanmarith Ly, deputy director of the provincial hospital in Ban Lung, said of the telemedicine project that allows him to send photographs of patients, X-rays, ultrasound images and electrocardiograms to specialists in Boston at Partners Telemedicine, a program of the Partners Health Care System.
Doctors from the staff of Massachusetts General Hospital and the Harvard Medical School review the files and send diagnoses, all pro bono.
Joseph Kvedar, a Partners doctor who directs the Boston end of the telemedicine project, saw the value of the effort when he visited the eight doctors at the Ban Lung hospital in November.
"The Cambodian doctors know how to do malaria, tuberculosis, chronic tropical infection conditions like diarrhea, dengue fever," Kvedar said by telephone from Boston. "But diabetes, hypertension, the diseases of the modern world, are just not in their lexicon. It is a perfect fit."
The Americans behind the project hope that e-mail will also bring economic benefits by connecting rural people and their products to wider markets. In Rovieng, where Negroponte finances his school, weavers sell their raw-silk scarves and ties through www.villageleap.com, a Web site operated by Krisher's group.
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