Articles

Djurslands.Net: A Wireless Project Where Sharing Knowledge, Not Technology, Matters Most

Denmark's extensive rural network, established and run by volunteers, serves as a model of what can be done economically to bridge the digital divide in large, under-populated areas.

by / June 1, 2007
Nielson at work

The fact that Djurslands.net is considered one of the biggest -- if not the biggest -- non-commercial rural wireless Internet network in the world is not its most notable feature. Neither is the fact that it runs at about a third of the cost it takes to run a similar project in the urban areas. Nor is the fact that it is run solely by volunteers in the several hundred villages across Djursland. No, by far the most interesting feature of this rural wireless project in Djursland (a region in the middle of Denmark) is its volunteers' fierce passion to share their experience and knowledge. They sincerely want to us "good old Wi-Fi" to form more self-help groups so that all the rural districts around the world can build their own wireless network and bridge the growing digital divide.

"Cities are an exception on earth," says Bjarke Nielsen, the maverick founder of this project who remains the main driving force of what many are now calling a movement. "Most of the surface of the earth is rural districts. And among the things they have in common is that it is often too expensive to deploy enough broadband infrastructure coverage so that everyone living on Earth can be part of the global ICT society. Thus the divide between life in cities and countryside is widening with catastrophic ramifications."

To believe that market forces -- commercial telecom companies -- will expand to bridge a digital divide of this magnitude would be sheer naivety. Amongst many other things then, adds Neilsen, DjurslandS.net most importantly serves as a showcase of how all local societies in rural or poor areas around the world can establishment of their own free (or cheap) high-speed wireless community network to access the global information society.

To this end Nielsen and his team of volunteers have also set up the Djursland International Institute of Rural Wireless Broadband" (DIIRWB) that  teaches the lessons learned during the establishing, building and running of the DjurslandS.net -- what he describes as all the pre-requisites lessons for success for a rural wireless community network.

The significance of Djurslands.Net as a project is only fully understood with some inkling of the topography of area. Djursland is a rural countryside in Jutland, the western mainland of Denmark, a peninsula which is connected to the continent in the south. Djursland is about 40 miles long and 30 miles wide, but as the peninsula is surrounded by ocean towards north, east and south, Djursland is a lot of water and just 600 square miles of land.

In terms of deploying Wi-Fi, its biggest problem is the sparseness of its population. Compared to the density of about 320 residents per square miles in the rest of Denmark, Djursland's has just about 82000 residents living in about 36000 households -- a density of about 143 people per square mile.

This sparseness of population, says Nielsen, makes this region attractive and difficult for commercial telecom operators to provide broadband connectivity. For instance Tele Denmark Company (TDC), the only telecom company that owns copper-line infrastructure in that country, can connect 95% of all households (with a 2-megabit ADSL broadband access) through just 1600 central hubs. But if TDC were to give the same connectivity to Djursland residents -- who constitute the remaining 5% of Denmark's population -- the company would have to install another 4600 ADSL centrals.

"Consequently," says Nielsen. "The economy of this region was facing collective collapse. And to reverse this situation we really needed a functional, self-sufficient IT-society. And that's how DjurslandS.net was born."

DjurslandS.net is based on an Internet connected optical fiber ring all around Djursland, bandwidth rented from commercial Internet Service Providers. Each of the now ten community networks on Djursland has access to this optical fiber ring in their biggest village, but as a cabled

network all the way to the homes is expensive, the bandwidth is spread out wirelessly -- point to point -- by directional antenna links that are placed on towers, silos or high buildings in the central villages. From there it is again wirelessly spread -- point to point -- by directional antennas pointing in different directions to more distant villages. This splitting structure is repeated several times until all villages get their wireless backbone connection.

From each of these connection points of this web infrastructure, the bandwidth is then spread locally by omni directional antennas to directional antennas on the roofs of the houses -- point to multipoint. "This way everybody is interconnected in a huge web -- a vast-area network with spontaneous Internet access," says Nielsen.

The attraction of this network is that it uses no cutting edge and thus expensive technology. "At every single end of each of all the connections we apply cheap, but feasible wireless standard access-points, based on the IEEE 802.11 a, b, g and n standards," says Nielsen.

These all use free and unlicensed frequencies and as most of the access points are for indoor use they are mass-produced and hence cheap. "The trick that makes it possible to use this kind of equipment for a wide- or even vast- or huge area-network is amplification of the radio signals with cheap antennas, which we have made ourselves," Nielsen explains.

To become a user in one of the community networks on Djursland, a household pays an affordable starting fee which is used to buy equipment for the infrastructure and the users gear. The broadband access payable to the ISPs is shared by all the member households, so that each member can get unlimited fulltime access for a "cheap" monthly fee.

According to Nielsen, until now more than 5000 rural households, institutions and firms have joined the "landscapenet". Each has contributed a one time fee of $350 for the equipment, and pays a monthly $17 for fulltime broadband access (2-7 Megabit/sec). According to Neilsen, based on the actual market prices in the cities in Denmark, Djursland.Net members get net access at one-third the price of their urban counterparts, which translates to saving of a whopping $3 million each year.

Still, that's not the main benefit of this project. "The real fruits of this effort," says Nielsen "is that it actually makes possible for everybody in Djursland to participate in the global IT-society on equal terms to their urban countrymen. This results in developing IT skills and competences and so contributes to the strength and sustainability of their own lives, as well as the life of the rural or suburban society as a whole."

"After four years of establishing and running landscapenet all over Djursland, we can now look back at the project with satisfaction," says Nielsen. But this is not where Neilsen and his team members would like to rest. "We will continuously develop ourselves to help rural people around the world establish, run and expand their own landscapenet," he says.

"And as we extend our knowledge to as many as possible," he adds, "We will need all the support and participation we can generate."

 

Nielsen's mantra of a successful community networks

1) Decide to care for the whole community.

2) Decide to be the one to take initiative.

3) Decide to not depend on anybody specific.

4) Start researching how to build it.

5) Make a vision: Where, What, When, How.

6) Organize to share your vision.

7) Form an inspired group of engaged people

8) Don't wait, go ahead, get real, make a test.