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Journal Journal: Nepal Wireless Network

I originally got interested in the Himanchal High School by a story on Slashdot. At that time I was planning a 6 month trek through Nepal and India. I though that a one month stay at the village would be a nice way of getting closer to the culture. I signed up and paid a US$25 fee.

Initially I had a discussion with Mahabir about how to get a modem working over a neighbouring villages phone. Eventually it turned out that this was a radio telephone, not a land line. That ended the discussion of how to get the village online.

The trek to the village is an experience an sich. From Pokhara you take a taxi for a 6 hour drive. The first half, you do most of the distance as this part actually has a hard road surface. The last part you are driving over a lousy mud road full of bumps and pits. Here you get your first glimpses of real Nepali life. The scenery is stunning. Then again, the scenery is stunning all over Nepal...

I spend the night in Beni, a small town af the foot of the mountain. Here, you could feel more of the tension caused by the Maoist Rebels. Curfue was strict, the hotel closing all doors and shutters at the appointed time. Earlier during the day we passed a few military checkpoints, looking through luggage and asking papers. My papers, however, were not requested. Neither was any of my luggage checked. Throughout my stay in Nepal, I have passed many military checkpoints (at least, I passed a few many times) and never were my papers requested or my luggage searched. The closest thing was a police officer asking my nationality and a soldier sqeezing my backpack and asking wether I had any bombs in there. I said I was all out. I spend more than 4 months in Nepal (Eventually I cancelled the rest of the trek for my stay in Nangi).

Encounters with the Maoist Rebels are relaxed too. Usually they just walk on by. Sometimes, they ask for money. If they do, they give you a receit you can show should you encounter other Maoist...

Currently, according to some experiences from recent Nepal travellers, tensions are rising and the relaxed, almost reverant (outside tourist areas), attitude toward tourists is disappearing.

The school I ended up in is the Himanchal High School in Nangi. I got a room in the Golo Ghar, the round house, which is two story building with bedding for upto 10 people. The second (older) volunteer pavillion is smaller, about 4 persons can live there. The accomodations are comparable to those of most trekking hotels, including a 'hot' shower.

The work I did at first was simple. Reviving as much PCs as possible from the parts they had. This may sound simple but it wasn't. Most of these parts were old and frankly, broken. Usually the problem was figuring out which part exactly was broken or which parts did work when used together... I also convinced them to switch from coax to UTP for their local network (no, not lightly. After almost three weeks of swapping cables and ethernet cards around to make things work, I gave up and financed a hub). Later I worked on the network and interfered in their plans for a new computerlab. (Use second story to avoid the dusty/damp mud floor, wooden coverings for the mud and rock walls, storage/server room and such). Overall, their new computerlab should keep their computers alive somewhat longer.

The huge problem in communication these people faced dawned on me when Mahabir took me around to see some of the other schools and villages he cooperated with (and fix the computers there). He send out a (written) message a week before we left and we beat the message to the last village by a day. It is hard to keep an organisation running if internal communication has delays measured in weeks... now all these villages have email.

I suggested 802.11b wireless networking to Mahabir and he liked the idea. I researched the ideas and possibilities and drafted a proposal. It was with this proposal (and the hard work of Jonni) that we got our hands on a pair of donated Cisco Aeronets 2Mbps Cards. It were these cards that were used for our initial testing and the connecting of Nangi to Ramche, 1200 meters across the valley. We used Nepali build satelite dishes (concrete irons and wiremesh) combined with home build can antennas (standard 1 liter cans used for cooking). Total cost of the antenna, somewhere around US$5.

I was rather overwhelmed with the success of our home build antennas and I wanted to use them for our overall network. Then I made the mistake of advising to use cheap wireless accesspoints (d-link 900 AP). The idea was that each village should be able to pay for their own equipment to join the network.

It were these cheap accesspoints the made that second trial (a 22 mile connection from a relay station at 3200m height to the nearest city, Pokhara) fail. If we had provided better shielding to the accesspoints it probably would have worked (We were using strong amplifiers on the connection to Pokhara). Both connections of the relay worked, but not when forwarding.

Still, it was a great feeling to get the link to Pokhara up and running. Sitting there 22 miles from Pokhara, 3200 meter above sealevel, at the top of the ridge reading my email (Too bad about the weather ;)), connected to a city barely visible on a good day (the city is in the upper left, the large lighter area just above the green ridge and below the round yellowish thingie.). After I left, some shielding was added and the link went up as a 2Mbit connection. Still the amplifier, the accesspoints and the hub together used too much power to for the solar panel to recuperate. Regularly replacing these batteries was not feasable. Carrying a fully charged lead-acid battery 1000 meters up (and an empty one down) is not something you want to do two or three times a week.

This opened the way for the third part of the deployment, a part where I have had little or no participation. See here for more.

So now they have internet.

While I was working on the project I had my doubts about the influence this would have on those people. Most of the students never have been farther than Pokhara and even then it was only because they needed to get their papers from the government office there. Suddenly they can see the world.

What do these people think of us? Me that probably spend more money getting there than they see in years. I am not a rich guy, certainly not at that point in my life, but how was I going to tell that to these people? The times I tried to explain it it failed to connect. I spend US$600 on a plane ticket and I was not rich? That just didn't compute...

I must admit I have revised my opinions since then. I am rich. Not compared to the people in the western world, but when I look at it at a global level, I am rich. And if you are reading this, chances are, so are you. Perspective is a strange thing.

I am more worried about the cultural impact of the internet on these people. When it comes to marriage for example, the legislation prohibiting arranged marriage are there, but practice hasn't caught up. Trials are sometimes necessary to force parent to allow their daughter to marry who they want. Actually marrying someone you love is considered being lucky. In some ways getting married at all is what matters. Women who are not married have no future. If their families are not willing to support them, they have nowhere to go. (Ok, overdramatising a bit here, there many projects in Nepal that try to help these women. Most of these women however end up in prostitution. Other marry some older man who lost his previous wive.)

Unmarried men and women are seldon alone together. It is not proper. Women are virgins when they marry. (There was even the story of a guy making love to his girlfriend before marriage and eventually marrying another girl because she wasn't virgin anymore.).

Violence however is rare. I was there when a boy arrived late for school on assembly day and got a kick under his behind from a teacher. He got angry and left to ask his father permission to fight the teacher. Permission was denied, but he didn't have to go to school that day.

In this culture we throw the internet. P0rn, violence, international politics and millions of assorted ideas, both good and bad. At times, the idea horrified me. Yet, I do not have the right to deny them the choice.

Luckily, this all starts with a trickle of access (the 2Mbps link terminates in a dail-up connection that reaches 28.8kbps on a good day. It will prepare them when they encounter the life in the touristic cities. There, internet access is abundant and cheap, there, the damage is done.

Thank you for reading this far :).

I have been asked why I chose for 802.11b and not simple packet radios. Well, I am not an American and over here that just never got popular, I did come across it, but since hardware was harder to get, I chose for 802.11b. The hardware was cheap and easily available.
Also, one of the ideas behind the network was to use video broadcasts to share teachers between the schools as qualified teachers are hard to get. Packet radio does not have that kind of bandwidth or latency AFAIK.

For more information I suggest you check out:

User Journal

Journal Journal: RIAA: Take some advise

I never understood why the RIAA does what it does the way it does it. Even settlements are horrible.

If I would own illegal mp3's and I would be caught by the RIAA, I would find it reasonable (i would not like it though) that they would just force me to buy all the cds I have 'pirated' songs from. It would correct all legalities (as I would have the right to own the mp3's under fair use laws), they get their revenue and royalties, the artists would get their share too and it even shows up favorably in the sales figures.

It would do a LOT for their public image...

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