February 19, 2008 Comments Off on Village backbone
While in Cambodia last week, I spent two wonderful days visiting telecentres and network hubs run by the iReach project. The idea behind iReach is to create 10 telecentres in two rural areas all connected to each other by wireless broadband (10mb/sec). One of the sites has a mediumband satellite Internet connection which is then shared across all the sites. However, the Internet is not the main point. Rather, the idea is to do broadband sharing within the 10 villages, which can be up to 20 kilometres apart.
The idea is a brilliant: connect people locally using the best and fastest technology, and leave the Internet as an afterthought. The people running the two iReach pilots are already thinking of interesting ways to make this useful. Podcasts of local people talking about local issues beamed via the network to loudspeakers outside of local pagodas. Video conferences to teach English. Cooperation amongst local committee members democratically managing the project. There are difficulties, but things like this are happening (or about to happen).
However, it also feels like there is still a ton of untapped potential. These networks could provide an excellent channel for NGOs (or even the government?) who say they want to reach out and work with communities like these. The people and technology are in place to offer education, health care, government services and anything else imaginable to these communities, at least in part. There is also potential for interesting new business models, like the VillageTelco idea Steve Song is playing with. The next challenge for the iReach project will be to show people who say they want to reach out to these communities how the network can help make things like these happen. My sense is they are ready for this.
A side note, which really should be its own story: I was super impressed by the role that the Maharishi Vedic University. This institution is acting as the lead for the iReach project in Kamshai Mear. They oversee the project, have helped build to local management committee and have sourced many of the staff. What’s impressive is how their combination of community development plus Bhuddist spirituality have given the project such a firm footing. All of the people we met and content we saw was very much *of* the communities being served. Example: an video promoting schoold enrollment with actors from the local management committee and villages. It’s hard to describe, but it felt alot like Sarvodaya meets Challenge for Change. Quite impressive, and likely to be a good mix with the local hitech / broadband model.