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.
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.
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.
Some of this seems to be an offshoot of what was started as a Media Lab Asia project.