RealTime IT News

Pedal Power: Look Ma No Wires

An innovative, pedal powered, wireless network provides Internet access to off-grid villages in Laos.

Jhai PC is a project of non-government organisation (NGO), Jhai Foundation.

"The equipment will be powered by electricity stored in a car battery charged by 'foot cranks'," Lee Thorn, Jhai Foundation chair, explains. These "are essentially bicycle wheels and pedals hooked to a small generator. The generator is connected to a car battery and the car battery is connected to the computer."

"Connection with each computer to the others will be by radio local area network (LAN)," he says. "Each village will connect to one repeater station powered by a solar means on the ridge near the river valley. That station will then send the radio signal to the microwave tower nearby and eventually to a server in Vientiane that will connect the villages to the Internet.

The key message of Jhai, which means "hearts and minds working together, is reconciliation. Laos is one of poorest countries in the world and, on a per capita basis, the most bombed place on Earth. Bounthanh Phommasathit, a co-founder of the organisation, was forced to flee her ancestral home in the Plain of Jars in Laos following the American bombing campaign during the Vietnam War. Thorn, the other co-founder, loaded several of the bombs that fell on the Plain of Jars while serving on the USS Ranger, an aircraft carrier.

Jhai projects focus on four key areas. These include education, technology, health and economic development. The Remote IT Village Initiative and Jhai PC are two key technology projects. "What we are trying to do," says Thorn, "is give five remote villages which have no electricity or phones, a means of communication and the use of simple business tools."

Each village will have a Jhai computer connected in a network with the other villages that connects to the Internet and to their high school-based Internet Learning Centres (ILC).

The Jhai computers will also provide them with the opportunity to do simple business functions like writing documents and creating spreadsheets for budgetary and simple accounting purposes.

Lee Felsenstein is a member of the Jhai Board of Advisors and project engineer for the Jhai communication project. He, and fellow engineer Mark Summer, are volunteering their time. Felsenstein has a long history of public advocacy and was a co-founder of The Community Memory Project, a non-profit organisation that developed public-access information-exchange systems beginning in 1972. He also designed one of the first portable computers for Osborne in the early 1980's.

"The Jhai PC is built of 'embedded' circuit boards," says Felsenstein, "of the sort that are used in industrial equipment. These are rugged and devoid of moving parts such as fans or disc drives, made to operate for long periods of time without service or attention. The Jhai computer consists of a single-board PC (the MZ-104 based upon the Mach-Z single-chip computer - equivalent to a 133 MHz 486 system)." He has analysed the "Internet appliance generation of chips and found this to be the best, especially for its low power consumption and remote BIOS reboot capability."

The software is LINUX-based and is being localised into the Lao language by Anousak Souphavanh and his team in New York. The system is being configured to provide a 'telegraph' (email) and telephone (VOIP communication) among the villages, via the Lao phone system, and worldwide through Internet telephony.

"Along with the processor," Felsenstein continues, "is an adapter card for PCMCIA cards, allowing us to use the Cisco Aironet 350 Wi-Fi (802.11b) wireless LAN card. A Sound Blaster compatible sound card completes the board complement. The three boards, together with a connector-panel board fit together in a compact 'stack' and have no case or power supply. We will build our own case, using a commercially available die-cast metal housing which will seal the boards from the external environment and still allow heat to transfer out."

"The system includes a regulator which doubles as a battery charger," he says, "and can operate from a wide range of voltages. We plan to use stationary bicycles equipped with generators for charging the batteries. The mountaintop relay stations will have solar panels for power, and we hope that the villages can also have them, though they are expensive."

In collaboration with Schools Online, Jhai Foundation has established four ILCs in high schools since 2000. All but one are in rural areas. Each facility contains 10 new PCs linked in a LAN together with a printer, a scanner, four microphones/headsets, and a digital camera. All facilities are renovated before they are occupied.

"The network, says Felsenstein, "is basically a star topology, with a 'access point' located on a peak overlooking the villages and having an antenna whose pattern will encompass them all. Each village has a high-gain parabolic antenna with which to reach the peak. The access point will have another antenna pointing to another peak, on which will be a relay station - actually just another access point but with tightly focused parabolic antennas arranged in a line which terminates at Centre in a town."

There, a terminal computer will interface both with an Internet server, by Ethernet, and with the Lao phone system, through an H.323 board. This will be able to dial and receive in-country phone calls. The system will be operated by teenagers in the villages under the supervision and training of the ILCs.

"At the moment," he concludes, " we have one computer set up going and are using it for development, we have attached a large hard drive to augment the 96-MByte flash disk. Mark Summer is integrating software, and we have just decided to purchase a telephone interface card good for four analog lines. The team in Rochester is hard at work localising Linux and the KDE environment for the Lao language. Our time line shows us ready to ship in October, but that may be revised."

"This is a world pilot project," says Thorn, "We expect to document it extensively. We see it as stage one of a project to link villagers in remote areas to each other and to people like us who are interested in Lao villagers' success in meeting their own and Lao PDR's goals. We expect that Jhai Foundation and especially our Lao consultants will report on this experience to interested parties, first, in Lao PDR, and second, elsewhere."

Reprinted from