Wi-Fi Bridges Indonesia’s Digital Divide

Spread across the world’s largest archipelago of thousands of islands between
Asia and Australia, Indonesia is highly diverse in its ethnicity with more than
300 local languages.


Ravaged by years of war and turmoil, the country recently faced the Asian
financial crisis, then the fall of President Suharto after 32 years in office,
amid continued inter-ethnic and religious conflict.


Indonesia currently faces several challenges. These include the
implementation of


International Monetary Fund
(IMF)
mandated reforms of the banking sector, making
the transition to a popularly-elected government after four decades of
authoritarianism, and addressing charges of cronyism and corruption, among
others.


In this context, the Indonesia government decided to increase fuel,
electricity, and phone rates in January this year. Prices for the Indonesia
telco tariff increased an average of 30 percent.


Five days later, the first Public Gatekeeper of VoIP Merdeka began. Their independence was declared soon after.


Voice over IP (VoIP) is a term used for a set of facilities that manage the
delivery of voice information using Internet Protocol (IP). Essentially, this
means the transmission of voice information in digital form as discrete packets
by contrast to the traditional circuit-committed protocols of the public
switched telephone network (PSTN).


A major advantage of VoIP and Internet telephony is that it avoids the tolls
charged with an ordinary telephone service.

VoIP Perjuangan, or ‘VoIP Struggle’, as it was originally known, was
established to enable PC-to-PC communication between any Internet user in the
country using a call numbering system chosen by the Internet community.


Spearheaded by Jakarta-based Dr Onno Purbo, one of Indonesia’s most prominent
information technology (IT) advocates, the group changed their name because
they feared politicisation due to similarities between VoIP Perjuangan and the
ruling political party. They were later renamed VoIP Merdeka, or ‘Liberated
VoIP’.


Dr Purbo, who believes this is the only community based movement organised
through mailing list
discussion
, is humble about the organisation’s
motives. “To build Indonesian people’s own telco without Indonesian telco,” he
smiles.


In 1884, the Dutch colonial government established a private company to
provide postal services and domestic and, subsequently, international telegraph
services. Telephone services were first made available in Indonesia in 1882 and,
until 1906, were provided by privately-owned companies based on a 25-year
government license.


Later, they would become government departments. Telecoms are now provided by
PT Telekomunikasi Indonesia, Tbk (TELKOM
Indonesia)
.


Indonesia, with a population of over 210 million, had seven and a half
million fixed lines and around nine million mobile phone subscribers by the end
of last year.


VoIP “tricks the legal system” by providing a non-commercial service that is
not connected to the incumbent telco. This subverts requirements for a
licence.


Just over 2800 users have
registered. Seventy registered gatekeepers are on the books, although Dr Purbo concedes that most gatekeepers in
proxy servers do not normally register their prefix.


The central philosophy of VoIP Merdeka is independence. Driven by volunteers,
Dr Purbo is keen to avoid funding from government sources, the International
Monetary Fund (IMF) or the World Bank.


VoIP Merdeka relies on donations of bandwidth and hard disk space. Their main
objective is enable low-cost communication for the masses based on the
non-proprietary H.323 protocol.


“The H.323 standard provides a foundation for audio, video, and data
communications across IP-based networks, including the Internet,” according to
the Protocol
Directory
. “H.323 is an umbrella recommendation from
the International Telecommunications Union
(ITU)
that sets standards for multimedia
communications over Local Area Networks (LANs) that do not provide a guaranteed
Quality of Service (QoS).”


Neighbours in six countries have also jumped on board VoIP Merdeka. These
include Singapore, Canada, Germany, England,
Sudan, and Japan.


The network receives approximately 1000 calls per day through the major
gatekeepers.


Dr Purbo says the Indonesian ISP Association
(APJII)
fully supports the initiative. “In fact,
they were the one really backing us from the early days. They invested in the
first gatekeeper for public users of VoIP Merdeka.”


The Indonesian
government
have been less forthcoming. “Government
is very slow and unresponsive,” he says. “As usual, we don’t rely and don’t need
their support or approval for all our activities.”


Indonesia’s Directorate General of Post and
Telecommunication
has promised not to take action
against the collective as long as the service is not commercialised and no
connection to the PSTN is attempted.


VoIP Merdeka is one project in a long list of initiatives supported by Dr
Purbo.


A strong advocate of wireless for developing countries, he believes wireless
fidelity (WiFi) has the potential to narrow Indonesia’s digital divide and
bolster economic development.


But this is not without challenges. He says the major problem is the
education and skill level of technicians who install the equipment. “Those guys
always solve their problems by putting power amplifiers, which ruins our
frequency reuse scheme.”


He explains, “WiFi is a shared frequency system and, therefore, frequency
reuse is very critical for Wide Area Network (WAN) deployment.”


The technology is only good for five to eight kilometre distances. For any
distance above, they piggyback over normal fibre and satellite carriers. “There
are a couple of non-Telkom operators,” Dr Purbo explains. “We do hope to have
more.”


His own set up is a working example of both the benefits of wireless and the
community approach he advocates.


Dr Purbo runs a WiFi connection twenty-four hours a day at 11Mbps. His
gateway is a Pentium 1 166MHz, 64Mbyte run on Linux Mandrake 8.0. A small 19dBi
parabolic antenna is used to reach an access point one kilometre away.


Ten computers are connected to a Local Area Network (LAN) through a 10Mbps
second-hand hub. By drilling a hole in his wall, Dr Purbo also connects his
neighbour to the network.


Last year, he was awarded an Eisenhower
Fellowship
, whose Single
Nation or Single Region Program
brings to the United
States (US) twenty emerging leaders in fields important to the future of their
country.


Each Eisenhower Fellow develops their own professional schedule based on
their interests.


Dr Purbo decided to explore how the Americans solve the digital divide in
their country. But he now realises their problems and focus in rural areas is
somewhat different to Indonesia.


Rural Americans tend to be quite wealthy and literate. Their major concern is
access to fibre or ADSL in their homes.


By contrast, residents of regional Indonesia are poor and illiterate. Their
major concern is reading and writing in the Indonesian language. “Not to
mention, a need for information and access to the Internet,” according to Dr
Purbo.


Despite the outcomes of the research, he shows his eternal optimism by saying
the experience enabled him to “make a lot of friends and learn something in the
process.”


His vision, he says with a smile, “is to see a knowledge based society in
Indonesia. I would like to educate Indonesians and enable them to build people’s
based telecommunication infrastructure using WiFi and VoIP.”

Reprinted from Australia.Internet.com.

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