Pedal Power: Look Ma No Wires

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

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

“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

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
, 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

“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

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