The Remote Village IT project has been the centerpiece of our early efforts. Dubbed the "Pedal Powered Internet" by The New York Times Magazine, it has focused our ideas on effective use of information technology in rural economic development. Starting from the express request for local and Internet telecommunications from villagers in Laos as relayed by the Jhai Foundation of San Francisco, the initial outlines of the system first took form as sketches on a napkin drawn by Lee Felsenstein at a Silicon Valley restaurant in 2001.
At that meeting Lee Thorn and Vorasone Dengkayaphichith of the Jhai Foundation described the situation: a cohesive group of five refugee villages, displaced from their ancestral homes in the Plain of Jars by bombing, had been settled in a valley out of cell phone range and without electrical power or telephones. They had voluntarily taxed themselves to improve their school, and while adult literacy was about 50 percent, the children were 100 percent literate in Lao. The villagers lived by farming and the women wove fine cloth for which there was demand, but their efforts at taking both products to market were hampered by lack of communication. They had many relatives overseas, and wanted to be able to talk with them by phone - only possible through Internet telephony from cafes in Vientiane. They also wanted some elementary computer capabilities (word processing, spread sheet) to enable them to assemble construction bids on paper.
The initial concept was of a telegraph station or telephone office in each village, using Wi-Fi links to interconnect the villages and to reach the nearest telephone line. This office would be run by schoolchildren, who could provide the needed literacy component for written communication. The software would be for email. Further research showed that Voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP) was a viable and growing technology, whose variable quality was not considered a problem by Lao users. The system concept was therefore modified to be a telephone system implemented through low-power computers and open-source software.
The project was taken on as a pro bono effort in early 2002. With the help of early volunteers Mark Summer and Steve Okay a pilot prototype was assembled and demonstrated in July of 2002 in San Francisco, transmitting data and images over a 3 km link using directional antennas. With the help of satellite-generated topographical maps the villages were located relative to the terrain, and likely relay points were identified on a mountain ridge overlooking the villages.
Computers were assembled from low-power modules manufactured for industrial applications--PCs on a single card with expansion capability (PC-104 type). A simple aluminum frame was designed to mount the modules in NEMA-4 standard outdoor electrical enclosures. Advice was solicited from wireless user's groups in the San Francisco area concerning the best transceivers, and Cisco Aeronet LM-352 cards were specified.
Architecturally, the system could be described somewhat like a palm tree. The long trunk represents the 9 km wireless link from the town of Phon Hong, where telephones and power were available, to the relay station on a 300 meter mountain. The branches of the tree represent the wireless links from the five villages to the relay point, which functions as an access point, mediating among the multiple villages. Where necessary the relay station routes data to the Phon Hong link, but otherwise the villages can communicate as a local area network.
The village PC drives an LCD display screen and a dot-matrix printer, selected for ruggedness and minimal use of consumable products. To power the printer 120-volt power inverter is built into the housing, and a switch circuit controls the power to the LCD and to the printer through the inverter. A Quicknet Phone Card VOIP adapter is plugged into the PCMCIA card slot not used by the wireless transceiver. Cables to the phone, display, printer keyboard and pointing device are conducted through the case in conduit fittings, which can be sealed up with caulking compound upon installation. A desiccant cartridge containing silica gel keeps the internal atmosphere dry, requiring attention once each two months, at which point it must be baked in an oven.
Due to the monsoon season, it was considered unreliable to power the village PC from solar panels, although two panels were used for the relay installation, which was in remote terrain. The higher power requirements of the village PC called for an alternative, and a bicycle generator manufactured in India was located as an inexpensive method of harnessing the childrens' power. The generator on the bicycle will charge a small lead-acid battery, which will then be transferred over to the large 360 ampere-hour battery which runs the village system.
All components were selected with an eye to a ten-year operating life.
Originally it was planned to use the Millennium flash disks-on-chips provided with the computer boards, but the requirements of the software and unforeseen driver problems with large versions of the disks-on-chip caused us to move to cheaper and larger Compact Flash cards. Adapters were purchased allowing these cards to plug into the IDE disk interface connectors on the computer boards. In order to gain necessary time for modification of the file system, hard disk drives based upon the IBM Micro Drive design were used instead of solid-state Compact Flash cards. These disks will later be replaced with Compact Flash when we solve the problem of running a journaling file system in memory and write to the flash cards only
on power-down. The operating system was Linux from the beginning, and has stabilized as Debian Linux 2.4. The village PC runs a localized version of the KDE application suite known as Laonux, the fruits of a project initiated by Anousak Souphavanh with many Lao and Thai volunteers. The X graphical user interface system must be run in order to run Laonux, and the resulting processor load necessitated the village PCs be upgraded to boards running the National Geode chipset, a Pentium 2 class processor clocked at 300 MHz. The relay and "server", which interfaces to the phone lines, remain using 486 class processors clocked at 128 MHz. These chips, from ZF Micro, use only 5 watts of power and can upload their own BIOS from an outside port if necessary, making for a maintenance advantage.
The server originally was to use a Line Jack card manufactured by Quicknet in order to place and receive telphone calls, but this product was discontinued and an alternative Quintum interface was used operating through an Ethernet port.
In January 2003 a test was run using laptops to communicate from the village of Phon Kham over the mountain to Phon Hong and thence to the Internet. Phone calls, email and images were transmitted, laying to rest reservations expressed by some about the technical feasibility of the project. In February the first attempt was made to install the system, but problems with software drivers caused major delays and the effort had to be called off when two hard disk drives were scrambled by a power failure. The project members travelled to Phon Kham to discuss the situation with the villagers, who expressed their understanding and continued support, and who held a party for us and others who had traveled far to witness the event.
In March Bob Marsh was asked to participate, as was Elaine Sweeney, an experienced software development manager. Many other volunteers came forward and work proceeded up to a second attempt at installation in June. This might have succeeded, but political problems arose which prevented installation of the relay in the time available. As of this writing the system has been working reliably and has been demonstrated at the ICT for Development platform at the World Summit on the Information Society in Geneva in December 2003.
In October, Lee Felsenstein was honored as a Laureate of the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, California for work in developing the Jhai Remote Village IT system.