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It Takes an Internet Village

In the hills of northeastern Cambodia, five men on motorcycles are connecting rural villages to one another, their government, medical specialists and the Internet.

Using wireless Internet technology and a storage-and-transmission device strapped to their motorcycles, the deliverymen drop off and pick up e-mail and Internet-search requests by driving near solar-powered electronic outposts along their rural route.

It's called the Internet Village Motoman project, a sort of pony express in a country where less than 1% of the population has Internet access and fewer than two of 100 inhabitants have telephones.

Rugged geography is just one of the challenges facing Cambodia and other remote parts of the developing world as they try to bridge the digital divide. A project to hook up Amazon Indians to the Internet last year required computer equipment to be shipped in by canoe due to low water levels in a local river. And Internet equipment had to come by foot to the Mount Everest base camp in Nepal because helicopters can't safely fly at such high altitudes.

A laptop computer originally used as a mobile-access point was too fragile for the banging around it would get daily on Cambodia's many unpaved roads. Next came an iPAQ hand-held computer from Hewlett-Packard Co. that was stolen. It later turned up when the thief was discovered using the Pocket PC as a flashlight.

Now, Cambodia's e-mailmen use a portable Linux computer in an ugly, but rugged, green box.

In Cambodia's Ratanakiri province, the technology comes from a Boston start-up called First Mile Solutions LLC. Tests in Cambodia have been successful so far, says 27-year-old First Mile founder Amir Alexander Hasson, who hopes to roll out a commercial product to other rural markets in developing countries this year.

The Internet Village Motoman project builds on a continuing project called Cambodia Schools, which runs a network of more than 200 schools. Funded by a variety of donors, including the World Bank, American Assistance for Cambodia and Japan Relief for Cambodia, the schools are equipped with a digital camera, computers and solar panels for four to eight hours of computing power daily. But only a few of the schools have the funds to link to the Internet via satellite.

That's where the Motoman project comes in. Since September, it has linked remote villages to a central satellite dish in the city of Banlung via a mobile device that stores e-mail messages and acts as an access point for Wi-Fi -- short for Wireless Fidelity -- a technology that lets laptops and other mobile devices connect to the Internet wirelessly over short distances.

Requiring little power to run -- the solar panels can power the device virtually around the clock -- the access point is linked to village computers through standard computer-network cabling. Its antenna is perched on the side of the school building and pointed at the road.

Traveling daily along five different routes throughout the province, the e-mailmen drive near the rural access points for a handoff with their onboard access point, powered by the motorcycle's battery. Back in Banlung, the deliverymen hand off their electronic mailbag to the satellite dish that relays the messages to the Internet. Named for the Hindi word for post or postal, the rural network is known as DakNet.

Things such as e-mail and Internet use "can have a significant impact on rural communities such as those in Ratanakiri," says Pauline Tweedie, information and communications technology program officer in Cambodia for the Asia Foundation, a San Francisco nonprofit group. "Widespread access to information and communication is a necessary foundation for economic growth, social development and good governance."

In Ratanakiri, some locals are using DakNet to communicate with the government. "Whenever villagers have a problem in their village that could not be solved among themselves, they come to the school and ask our teacher to send an e-mail to the governor," says Neou Ty, the local manager for the Motoman program.

The area governor has an e-mail unit in his office and has pledged to respond to villager messages. Villagers have also sought jobs from companies in town by e-mail. Online referrals are also common between Ratanakiri, a provincial hospital, and Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School in Boston. The digital cameras are especially useful for long-distance diagnosis.

Costs remain a hurdle. First Mile's Village Area Networking Kit is expected to be priced at $500 to $600 when released, though that is a fraction of the cost of the electricity and communications infrastructure that would otherwise be necessary to deliver e-mail to the villages. But the biggest challenge remains simple access.

"We may do a project in Laos, where the access point is on a paddle boat," Mr. Hasson says. "But we have to figure out how to get power into the boat."


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