Changing lives through wireless connectivity in Nepal

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As a part of our consultation with experts with regard to Public access venues in Nepal, we happened to have an inspiring meeting with the champion behind successful implementation of wireless project in Nepal. This gentleman  needs no introduction, but we cannot stop ourselves from giving a brief account of this great person. He has been a blessing for the people of rural Nepal. Mahabir Pun is a sought after community leader who won the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay 2007 for his innovative application of wireless computer technology in Nepal, bringing progress to remote mountain areas by connecting his village to the global village. He is trying to break the cycle of poverty in his mountain village  of Nangi by taking it into the computer age.

The very thought of being able to meet the man behind the Nepal Wireless Project created ripples in our hearts. We were all exited and anxious at the same time. Everybody said that it is very difficult to get an appointment with him but stars were in our favor when Mr. Mahabir Pun agreed to meet us at his residence in Pokhara. We received a warm welcome at his place and all through the meeting, we kept marveling at the simplicity of this man who has done so much and honored by so many. There was no tinge of arrogance and the positive aura that flew from within him inspired us all.
Today schools in seven villages of Myagdi (a remote district in western Nepal) including the one in famous Ghorepani of the Annapurna trekking route are connected to rest of the world via computers that communicate with each other though wireless network powered by the dish antennas hanged on the trees. The Himanchal Higher Secondary School in Pun’s own village Nangi can be taken as the hub of the pioneering network. “Today, connectivity is changing Myagdi,” the Board of Trustees of Magsaysay says in its citation. “Using the district’s ‘tele-teaching’ network, good teachers in one school now instruct students in others. Doctor less villagers uses Wi-Fi to consult specialists in Pokhara. Village students surf the Net and are learning globe-savvy skills. Pun himself is using the Web to e-market local products such as honey, teas, and jams.”

Pun was born in Nangi village in Myagdi, which is seven-hour walk from the nearest road in the district. The village, where no landline ever reached, is now connected to the global village with the introduction of wireless Internet Technology, thanks to the efforts of 52-year-old Pun. During his childhood in a village school, Pun also had to go to graze cattle. The village school he went to had no paper, pencil and books. Pun’s family moved to Chitwan (district in central Nepal down in the planis), where he completed his high school and became a teacher. He got scholarship for bachelor’s degree at the University of Nebraska in Kearney, US. He returned to Nangi in 1992.  Since then he has connected the villagers to the rest of the world by establishing wireless computer networks in the hills and there is no one in the region who doesn’t know about him. And after the Ramon Magsaysay Award, there is nobody in the country who doesn’t know about him.

Thanks to his efforts to bring in volunteers and other assistances from abroad, Himanchal School got two personal computers and a laptop from Australia’s Billanook College. After seeing those computers, Pun dreamed of the wireless network. “Our dream then was to have the students of Billanook College and Himanchal High School communicated with each other through e-mail,” he writes. “That dream did not come true instantly. The main reason was that there was no phone line in the village to connect to the Internet."

But Pun didn’t give up. He kept on asking people for ideas and wrote a very short e-mail to the BBC in 2001, asking if they knew any body who could give him ideas (if there were any) to get a cheaper Internet connection to his village in Nepal. Well, the BBC guys didn’t have the idea but they provided him more than that. They interviewed him and posted that in the website: “Village in the Clouds Embraces Computers”

“That article changed everything,” Pun writes. “I got many responses with ideas from people all over the world. That was the first time I heard about 802.11b wireless technology.”

As a result of the BBC article, two volunteers from Belgium (Johan Verrept) and Finland (Jonni Lehtiranta) reached Nangi in early 2002 with two Cisco PC Wireless Cards that were donated by IBM Finland. They did several experiments in 2002 with the wireless cards to test the connection between two villages, Nangi and Ramche, which are about one and a half kilometers (about a mile) apart across a river valley. The test was successful and the rest is history that has made Nepalis proud.

During our meeting with Mr. Pun (sorry Dr. Pun-University of Nebraska, Kearney has awarded him with an Honorary Degree, Doctor of Humane Letters in December 2007 for his outstanding work for his country-which very few people know about), the first thing that he said was “My objective was not to build telecenters, but to connect rural villages through internet”, which he, of course did. He feels sad that there are no collaborative approaches in our country and that different organization are trying to do the same thing. A collaborative approach, according to him could do wonders.

He said that reason for opting wireless technology was not only to make internet reach villages but his focus was on education and health. In education sector, the main problem is lack of teachers. Even if teachers are available, they are not able to pay even the basic salary of the teachers. Second major problem is unavailability of content. So to cope with such problems, he focused on education and ENRD is working towards development of content that would be helpful in education. They are developing content through Open Learning Exchange, which is now in the testing phase.  Similarly, in health sector, the problem is that of trained professionals and doctors. During emergency, advice of doctors is very critical. In this context, Om Hospital in Pokhara is connected to villages in Myagdi to guide them in such situations. Through the project, at least 7 serious cases are handled through telemedicine. The telemedicine that is being provided through the project is different from what is being practiced worldwide. It is different because they are providing no specialized services; rather focus is on general services.

 They are also trying to develop content on agriculture in association with Practical Action. The content being developed is completely in Nepali language. Another area where ICT can be of great benefit, according to him is Teletraining, wherein any kind of training whether related to health or agriculture can be provided to villagers through Internet.

He highlighted that wireless connection has been provided to 22 villages till date. In most of the telecenters under Nepal Wireless Project, the major source of income has been telephone service. Internet to Phone is still being tested in the villages, but it has not yet been launched since the bandwidth is very low (128/128 kbs). In addition, E-mail is also getting popular in villages. Most men have gone to foreign land in search of better future. So, women have started using internet to connect to the men as the cost of using internet is very low as compared to the telephone.

Their intranet provides a host of services including the E-Newspapers, E-mail, Bulletin Board, local advertisements, E-Library, Haat-Bazaar, and many more. Haat Bazaar is an online buying and selling of goods among the rural people. The Center operator has the authority to post goods on the website with complete details. The focus for haat bazaar is on livestock because that is one thing that’s on high demand among the villagers. One new initiative of Nepal Wireless Project is the introduction of E-remittance in partnership with Thamel.com, which, at present, is in testing phase.

Whenever a person undertakes something challenging and something important, we have heard every individual brawling on how difficult it is to get things done, and that he/she is facing so many problems to complete the task. But it kept us awestruck when he said that there are no challenges in the task that he is undertaking. In fact, amidst so many things that we consider “problems”, he said that there is an opportunity to do so much. The community is ready to accept the change, and this is described as the biggest opportunity for his project. All they need is the right kind of services, and the right training to benefit from the services.

His inspiring words and the positive outlook towards everything kept us all thinking about how paltry we are, how we get de-motivated at small setbacks. He has proved that if we are willing to do anything, nothing can stop us: all we need to set ourselves on a fire of dedication and perseverance.
 

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