I first heard about the Nepal Wireless Project, a rural Internet service provider (ISP) in Nepal, when I stumbled upon its website in 2008. The Nepal Wireless Project provides low-cost Internet connectivity to schools, health centers, and businesses in the Myagdi and Mustang districts of Nepal. After a few years of operation, the demand for Internet services in the region had reached the limit of what the existing network—powered by home routers and 802.11b wireless cards—could handle. To boost the capacity of the network and to expand coverage to new regions of Mustang district, the Project's managers planned an overhaul of the entire network. The new network would reach farther up into the mountains, connecting the towns of Jomsom and Muktinath (at roughly 12,000 feet of elevation). In the summer of 2008, I received grant funding to support a 10-week trip to Nepal to work with Mahabir Pun, the Project's founder, to upgrade the equipment along the length of the Project's network.
My summer began in Kathmandu, where I configured and tested new wireless radios, cables, and antennas for the network with Indiver Badal—one of the Project's network engineers. Two weeks later, I left Kathmandu for Pokhara with a group of Nepali volunteers (plus one Iraqi volunteer) and a truckload of new equipment. During the next five weeks, we hiked from village to village, removing the old equipment and installing the new radios and antennas. By the end of the summer, we had replaced equipment at all of the major relay stations in the network and had brought several new elementary school computer labs online.
After installing the new equipment, I helped to deploy two new pilot programs for the Project. The first program was an experiment in telemedicine. Using digital video cameras, we created an Internet video link between a handful of small health clinics in the Mustang district and a hospital in Kathmandu. The link will give young doctors in remote areas the ability to seek advice from more experienced doctors in Kathmandu and to observe surgeries taking place in the Kathmandu hospital's operating room.
The second program I helped to implement was fee-based Internet access service. We deployed the fee-for-service program in Jomsom, the largest and most tourist-oriented village in Mustang district. Using the same wireless "hotspot" technology that is common in U.S. airports and hotels, I helped to deploy a series of wireless hotspots in Jomsom. By charging tourists and local businesses for Internet access, the Project hopes to raise enough revenue to cover the cost of maintaining the network and of providing Internet access to the local schools.
What makes the Wireless Project's work extraordinary is not just that it has enabled villagers in rural Nepal to get online despite the extremely challenging environmental conditions. The most remarkable thing about the Project's work for me is that it was founded and is maintained entirely by the community it serves. The Project's local connections allow it to expand quickly and at little cost into remote areas that large NGOs might never be able to reach.