Articles

DakNet: Internet Goes Rural Riding on a Motorbike

United Villages, Inc. wants to provide 2 billion villagers with an e-mail address, a phone number, and basic Web access. And through its hundreds of installations in rural India and parts of Rwanda, Cambodia and Paraguay, it has already brought connectivity to over 200,000 people, some in villages lacking even basic infrastructure like electricity and roads. 

by / August 2, 2007 0
What do you do when you want to provide digital communication services like voice mail, digital documents and e-mail to those living in villages so isolated quite apart from no phones, there's no electricity -- where even availability of drinking water is a problem?

Take the Internet to them of course!

But how, when there's not even a proper road to the village? Why, on motorcycles! And if that doesn't work either, try bicycles.

That's exactly what a Massachusetts-based provider of "simple, low- cost, and easy to deploy" telecommunication equipment, United Villages, Inc. is doing these days to take information and communications services to over two hundred thousand rural residents around the world.

Creatively using the simple concept of Wi-Fi (802.11x wireless) and digital storage boxes, United Villages is distributing bandwidth from a hub with regular broadband Internet connectivity to users "as far as the road goes," says the company.

This technology, which United Villages calls DakNet, essentially uses Wi-Fi boxes fitted in buses or on any other vehicle - such as two wheelers for places where roads won't accommodate four wheelers. These start from a big town or city and go into interior villages to provide "store and forward" connectivity in rural areas.

According to Richard Fletcher, co-founder of United Villages, Inc., the DakNet wireless network takes advantage of the existing communications and transportation infrastructure to distribute digital connectivity to outlying villages lacking a digital communications infrastructure. Thus "DakNet, whose name derives from the Hindi word for post or postal services, combines a physical means of transportation with wireless data transfer to extend Internet connectivity that a central uplink or hub, such as a cybercafe, VSAT system, or post office provides.

Instead of trying to relay data over a long distance, which can be expensive and power-hungry, DakNet transmits data over short point-to-point links between kiosks and portable storage devices, called mobile access points (MAPs).

Mounted on and powered by a bus, a motorcycle, or even a bicycle a MAP physically transports data among public kiosks and private communications devices (such as an Intranet) and between kiosks and a hub (for non real- time Internet access).

Low-cost Wi-Fi radio transceivers automatically transfer the data stored in the MAP at high bandwidth for each point-to-point connection. DakNet operation thus has two steps: one, as the MAP-equipped vehicle comes within range of a village Wi-Fi-enabled kiosk, it automatically senses the wireless connection and then uploads and downloads data.

Then, when a MAP-equipped vehicle comes within range of an Internet access point (the hub), it automatically synchronizes the data from all the rural kiosks, using the Internet. The steps repeat for every vehicle carrying a MAP unit, thereby creating a low-cost wireless network and seamless communications infrastructure.

"This technology's main benefit," says Amir Alexander Hasson, the other co-founder of United Villages, "stems from providing ICT access to people in rural and remote areas who would have otherwise had to go a long way to access communication." Take the instance of the DakNet installation in a remote village called Kalapathar in Orissa, India. "Before DakNet," says a resident of the village "we had to travel over 20 miles spending $2 for the round trip journey, and almost a whole working day just to access a telephone line at the nearest post office. But now, sending an email costs us just about 2 cents."

The other benefit of the technology is its cost. "DakNet is currently al least an order of magnitude lower in cost than available alternatives such as cellular, satellite, and WiMax," claims Hasson adding that DakNet's infrastructure cost per line is just about 1% compared to the cheapest alternative, the fixed line phone.

Still, these two are not the biggest advantage of DakNet, say its developers. Its biggest benefit, according

to United Villages, is that it provides people in under-serviced rural areas with a digital identity -- a lifetime phone number and email address. Villagers in rural Costa Rica for instance have been "unwired" with email addresses and IP-based voicemail boxes through a project called Los-Santos.net, which is a partnership between United Villages, Inc., the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Central American Business Administration Institute, CoopeSantos (Costa Rican electricity cooperative), CoopeDota (coffee cooperative), and the Costa Rica for Sustainable Development Foundation. United Villages' technology here, it claims, has enabled the resident to receive email and voicemail, and browse the Web right from their local general store.

Besides, adds Chintan Bakshi the Chief Operating Officer of the Indian unit of United Villages, "DakNet installed in 20 villages in [the Indian state of ] Orissa, some of which are as far as 75 miles away from [the state capital city] Bhubaneswar, are also enabling the residents make travel booking, sell their crafts over e-shops, make job searches and even matrimonial searches."

According to United Villages, over two billion people living in rural areas globally do not get access to even basic information and communications services just because telecommunication companies and governments have not been able to provide a sustainable, cost-effective infrastructure. While the cost of connectivity rises dramatically with the distance from the backbone of the communications infrastructure, population density and income per capita decrease dramatically, and these two factors are the biggest reasons for the increasing global "digital divide," believes United Villages.

"Our mission is to provide [these] 2 billion villagers with an e-mail address, a phone number, and basic Web access. In 10 or 15 years, I would hope to be a good half-way through that vision - at least.," says Hasson. And although, United Villages is nowhere near that figure yet, it has nevertheless made some impressive progress. Through its hundreds of installations in rural India and parts of Rwanda, Cambodia and Paraguay, the DakNet claims, United Villages has already brought connectivity to over 200,000 people some of whom live in areas where even basic infrastructure like electricity and roads is luxury.

In Ratnakari Village in Cambodia for instance, DakNet runs on computers that are powered by solar panels fixed on rooftops or generators attached to a bicycle wheel, which not only help 15 village schools to get connected to the Internet, but also allows its residents to run a telemedicine clinic and the local governor to run his office. "This village does not even have a proper road, so the Wi-Fi boxes are fitted on Honda motorcycles," says Bakshi.

"In the future we want to be perceived as a one-stop low cost information, communications and e-commerce services provider in rural areas," says Bakshi. "So our objective is to use technology, whether it is DakNet or any other technology (we are technology agnostic to that extent) to deliver low cost, reliable and appropriate services to customers in the entire developing world."

Bakshi also adds that DakNet does not face any threat from competing technologies like Wimax or from others, "because we feel what we bring to the table an effective, low cost and robust technology and business model that works in rural regions, is unique."

Still, Hasson's dream of hooking up even a half of the 2 billion people to the Internet may not be easy. According to United States Agency of International Development (USAID), United Villages faces a few serious challenges going ahead, the biggest of which "is to penetrate the relatively risky and unknown rural market by combining its ability to provide low- cost Internet access with locally relevant applications, keeping in mind the end users' limited ICT literacy."

"Applications are the key to generating end- user demand for DakNet technology," says USAID and, "since United Villages itself does not develop these applications, United Villages will need to rely on strategic partnerships or its clients."

Further, USAID adds, while some organizations have used United Villages technology to develop applications, none have moved past small- scale deployments. Additionally, the regulatory environment may prohibit profitable services such as United Villages proprietary VoiceMail Over IP technology.

So, even as the company may make some tall claims, according to USAID the next few years will be crucial in determining the success of DakNet.

Indrajit Basu is the international correspondent for Government Technology's Digital Communities.