Wi-Fi lifeline reaches remote Himalayas

It used to take teacher Mahabir Pun more than two days to check his email from his home in the remote Himalayan village of Nagi in western Nepal.

The 55-year-old would walk for seven hours to the nearest road before taking a three-hour bus ride along precarious mountain tracks to the only town in the area with an Internet connection.

Today, all Pun has to do is log on to the wireless network he has set up over the past few years, catapulting more than 100 impoverished villages in Nepal into the 21st century.

The technology has transformed lives in some of the most inhospitable places on earth, where there are no roads or hospitals and where most people scratch out a meagre living as subsistence farmers.

It allows communities to access vital medical expertise via videolink, stay in touch with loved-ones abroad, and even sell their yaks, goats and chickens online on www.nepalwireless.com - a sort of e-Bay for local farmers.

"We chose areas where no commercial Internet service provider would ever go," says Pun, who estimates that around 70,000 people can access the network.

"When we started, almost no one in rural Nepal was using the Internet. Now we have connected more than 100 villages. But that is nothing, there are thousands more villages like these in Nepal."

It all started when Pun travelled to the United States in the 1990s to study for a masters degree. The Internet was just becoming popular, and one of his professors suggested they set up a web site for his home village.

It was one of the first Internet sites to mention Nepal, and by the time he returned home, Pun was being bombarded by messages from people around the world who wanted to visit the 800-strong mountain community.

"At that time, not even businesses in (the capital) Kathmandu had websites, but Nagi did," he told AFP in his native village, 2,200 metres (7,200 feet) up in the Himalayas.

"I was getting emails from all sorts of people including doctors and college professors, and they all wanted to know what they could do to help our village. So I invited them to come and volunteer."

Pun decided his students should learn about this emerging new technology, but the school could not afford to buy a computer. So he asked everyone who came to bring a component, and set about teaching himself to build one.

He organised a collection centre in the backpacker district of Kathmandu, and managed to put together around a dozen makeshift computers, building them in wooden crates and distributing them to schools in the area.

But it was not until 2002 that, with the help of volunteer students, a plan was formed to hook up the village to the Internet using a wi-fi connection from the nearest major town, Pokhara.

There were myriad challenges. No one had ever tried to build a wi-fi network at such a high altitude before, and a series of relay towers had to be built to beam the signal through the narrow valleys.

All the construction materials had to be carried up the mountain by hand along with the solar panels needed for power. The highest stands at 3,600 metres, and is manned by a yak farmer who has to check the connections daily.

Mains electricity had still not reached any of the villages, and to make things even more difficult, Nepal was in the grip of a bloody Maoist insurgency and Nagi had fallen completely under the control of the leftist guerrillas.

"The Maoists had eyes everywhere. They used to come and ask lots of questions, but they didn't know much about the Internet," says Pun.

"All the parts we used were totally illegal. If the army had come here more frequently, they would have put a stop to it."

Once again, Pun asked his foreign volunteers to bring what they could to help - customs officials, he reasoned, would be unlikely to suspect Western backpackers of smuggling in contraband communications equipment.

Nagi was the first village to be connected, and by September 2003, five villages in Myagdi district, around 200 miles (300 kilometres) north-west of Kathmandu, were accessing the network.

Now, Pun operates two networks that connect more than 100 villages to the Internet - a significant achievement in a country where just 6.3 percent of people have online access.

In 2007 he was awarded the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay prize - widely viewed as the Asian equivalent of the Nobel - for community leadership.

But he is determined to avoid the world of "conferences, resolutions and commitments," and has said he only accepted because the 50,000-dollar prize could help put more villages online.

To keep costs down, Pun travels around the country by public bus and works from a tiny office in his family home.

The local Internet service provider charges a discounted rate of 45,000 rupees (640 dollars) a month for the connection, with the cost shared between dozens of villages in the area.

In Nagi, they have set up a paper-making business to raise funds, and Pun is working with the government to create a new trekking route he hopes will bring much-needed tourist dollars to the villages.

In the packed computer room at Nagi school, the impact on the community is clear.

At one terminal sits 63-year-old Amar Pun whose three children, like many Nepalese, have moved abroad, unable to find work in their home country.

"They send news of their lives by email and I send back news of the village. It feels great to be in touch, I love hearing from them," he says.

Teenagers chat on Facebook to friends in neighbouring villages, watch Nepalese pop music on YouTube and look up the latest gossip on their favourite football players.

In the village clinic, health worker Rupa Pun connects every morning to a Kathmandu hospital using a webcam, allowing patients to be seen by doctors hundreds of miles away.

"It used to take sick patients two days to get down into the valley for treatment. They had to be carried in a basket or on a makeshift stretcher," she says.

"Before, we could only treat minor illnesses here. Now the doctor can give his diagnosis and send the right drugs up here if we don't already have them. It has made a huge difference to our lives."

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Recruitment Genius: Junior IT Support Technician

    £20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Junior IT Support Technician ...

    Recruitment Genius: ASP.NET Developer / Programmer - SQL, MVC, C#

    £35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This distributor and wholesaler...

    Ashdown Group: HR Advisor - Bedfordshire - £30,000 + Excellent package

    £28000 - £30000 per annum + Bonus, Pension, 25days hol, PHC +: Ashdown Group: ...

    Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Credit Controller

    £20000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The successful candidate will h...

    Day In a Page

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn