- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 15, 2003

BAN PHON KHAM, Laos Villagers in this remote jungle hamlet have lived for years without electricity or telephones, relying on occasional visitors and a sluggish postal system for news of the larger world.
But soon many of its residents will be jumping on stationary bikes to pedal their way online.
Custom-built computers running on bicycle-powered generators will transport villagers from rice fields to chat rooms and Web sites worldwide. They will be able to monitor rice and vegetable prices, sell handicrafts and send e-mail to relatives.
The project, expected to begin as early as this spring, gets around the lack of phone lines through a clever application of the increasingly popular WiFi technology, which is used to wirelessly connect laptops, handheld and other devices.
For the first time, villagers will also be able to make phone calls, using Internet-based voice technologies. And because much of the project is built around nonproprietary, or open source, software, villagers will essentially own the system.
The project is the brainchild of the Jhai Foundation, a San Francisco aid organization started by Vietnam War veteran Lee Thorn.
While Mr. Thorn wants to build the local economy and help poor villagers enter the digital age, he also hopes to heal the wounds of a war he helped wage as a bomb loader for Navy planes that flew missions over Laos, where the United States was fighting communist insurgents and their North Vietnamese allies.
The ingenious system not much different from a school science project comprises five computers built with discarded microchips.
They connect to the Internet with a radio network and are powered by hulking batteries attached to stationary bicycles imported from India. One minute of pedaling yields five minutes of power.
"In a country where the population is isolated … it becomes necessary to think about decidedly low-tech solutions," said Andy Carvin of the Benton Foundation, a nonprofit organization that studies global Internet access.
Elsewhere, Mr. Carvin said, communities have turned to hand cranks and even cow manure where electricity is unavailable. He said the Lao project represents the latest of the "homegrown solutions."
The first of the computers is being set up in a freshly painted classroom of the local schoolhouse, a single-story concrete building in a clearing in the center of the village. The others will go to neighboring villages.
All five will use WiFi to send data wirelessly to a central radio transmitter and antenna dish at the school. From there, microwave signals will be sent to a treetop antenna on a nearby mountain ridge and routed to a dial-up Internet account at a nearby hospital, which has two of the region's few phone lines.
Though the bikes will provide power for much of the system, the relay stations will have solar panels. WiFi offers decent speeds, and the hospital's dial-up connection will likely be the primary bottleneck.
"We're trying to make this as simple as possible so it can be replicated anywhere in the world," Mr. Thorn said, after sending e-mail to the United States from his laptop perched on a 50-gallon oil drum.
But Mr. Carvin said access is only the start.
"Time will tell how successful this is going to be," he said. "Do they have the training program set up and enough content available in Lao as well as some of the tribal languages of the indigenous population?"
Organizers say some of that is being addressed.
Although English Web sites will remain in English, villagers will be able to send and receive messages in their native language. Software will also feature menus translated into Lao.
Students in Phon Kham will be trained to use the system and teach older villagers.
The network, designed and built for $19,000 plus donated labor, will cost $21 a month to operate, Mr. Thorn said.
Central to the network is the Jhai PC, a plastic-encased computer smaller than a laptop and built to withstand the punishing heat and monsoon rain of the Lao countryside.
The units were built by Lee Felsenstein, inventor of the world's first portable computer.
Because the equipment was customized, last-minute technical glitches forced a delay in the project's start, originally scheduled for this week.
Settled in 1975 by refugees who fled U.S. bombing over Laos during the Vietnam War, Phon Kham has been a quiet haven for the likes of Pahn Vongsengthong, a 78-year-old retired rice farmer.
Like many other villagers, Mr. Pahn has family scattered around the globe.
"The first thing is that I miss my daughters," said Mr. Pahn, who lives in a simple thatched-roof farmhouse and has never used a computer.
"Whenever I miss them, I will be able to walk down the road and talk to them" via computer.
Tavee Pulaimchit, 60, the village's chief, said the high-tech outpost will help residents compete for lucrative contracts from businesses elsewhere in Laos, one of the world's poorest countries.
"This village is isolated from the bigger towns and cities," he said, "and we need to keep in contact with the markets there."

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