By Xeni Jardin|
02:00 AM Aug, 17, 2006
DHARAMSALA, India -- Across the border from Chinese-occupied Tibet, the tech infrastructure in this high mountain village is a mess.
But a former Silicon Valley dot-commer and members of the underground security group Cult of the Dead Cow are working with local Tibetan exiles to change that using recycled hardware, solar power, open-source software and nerd ingenuity.
Click here for extensive photos of Tibet's mesh network.
The volunteers are building a low-cost wireless mesh network to provide cheap, reliable data and telephony to community organizations.
The Dharamsala Wireless Mesh is an example of "light infrastructure," a concept gaining popularity among tech developers: decentralized, ad hoc networks that can deliver essential services faster than conventional means.
Attempts to deploy similar community wireless networks in America have been blocked repeatedly by national phone carriers. It takes a big company like Google to build citywide Wi-Fi networks (the company launched its first in Mountain View, California, this week).
So sustainable network builders are going where they're welcome -- in this case, a rural village 7,000 feet up in the Himalayas.
When Chinese forces occupied Tibet in the 1950s, thousands of refugees fled across the Himalayas to northern India. Half a century later, the village where many settled -- Dharamsala -- is home to a large exile community eager for opportunities in India's tech industry.
But electricity sputters off and on. Land lines and cell phones are frequently down for days. Those who can afford it carry multiple mobiles, in case one provider's network conks out. Internet access is scarce and expensive.
Yahel Ben-David, founder of the Dharamsala Wireless Mesh, honed his tech skills in Silicon Valley and his mountain skills in the Israeli military.
Using old climbing gear, he shimmies up towers to install repeaters, crosses high passes to reach remote antennas, and recycles discarded tech junk from the West. Here, new parts from the United States or Europe are prohibitively expensive.
Some of the technical challenges he faces are unique. This may be one of the only networks in the world where antennas must be monkey-proofed.
"Monkeys are everywhere," says Ben-David. "Often, you'll see a huge, gorilla-sized monkey hang on to an antenna, swing from it, eat it, try to break it. We lost a lot of cables that way, but now we use very strong equipment so that even monkeys can't break it."
Ben-David's Tibetan collaborators include Phuntsook Dorjee, a network technician who was born in exile. He now serves as the Tibetan Technology Center's liaison between hackers and local Tibetan community leaders, including the office of the Dalai Lama.
Dorjee says internet telephony is one of the most attractive applications for Tibetans because Tibetan script cannot be written using standard keyboards or SMS. "With VOIP they can just speak," he says.
Tech experts from the West have been passing through Dharamsala to help since the network went live in 2005, but they soon learn not to expect star treatment. Locals refer to them in Hindi slang as computer-wallas, like plumbers for PCs, just as the street-corner veggie vendor is the sabji-walla and rickshaw drivers are taxi-wallas.
Unlike most community wireless projects in the United States, Dharamsala's growing mesh is not open to laptop-toting visitors. The bandwidth its operators have to share is limited, costly and much of it comes from BSNL, the government-controlled telecom provider. So for now, access is limited mostly to schools, government offices and nonprofits, which pay a nominal fee and host equipment to further the network's reach.
Admins reluctantly installed a content filter at one site because so many adults were visiting porn sites that the network's limited bandwidth became choked.
"They found it a bit awkward to tell people to stop, because apparently some of the people doing this surfing were quite high in the organization," says Ben-David. "So we put in a porn filter, and suddenly traffic usage dropped a lot."
You'll find antennas in the oddest places here. Because Hindu temples are often built on hilltops, these are sought out as antenna sites. Sometimes the antennas are painted with religious symbols like the Sanskrit om so locals will welcome their presence.
The project's home base is a small, nondescript room on the campus of the Tibetan Children's Village, an educational center and foster home for young refugees.
Samdhong Rinpoche, the 67-year-old prime minister of Tibet's government in exile, is a religious scholar and close associate of the Dalai Lama. He fled Tibet with the Dalai Lama in 1959 after China took over.
Earlier this month, he announced a new information-technology initiative that includes an online Tibetan-language video news network.
Many here are now hoping the internet will bring new economic benefits. Could Tibetans run call centers, like those in India's south, or use the mesh for e-commerce -- selling thangkas or yak cheese online?
Rinpoche believes there's something inherently Tibetan about the internet. Life is a network.
"Nothing is independent," he says. "Everything is related and interdependent. We have to connect with each other, and for connecting we need communication. And for communication now there are tremendous facilities (through technology) ... and it is very good."
The prime minister is among those in Dharamsala who also see technology as a valuable tool for preserving Tibet's past.
He says he carries 300 volumes of religious texts on a few CDs, a quantity that would have been impossible to transport on paper. A number of Tibetan organizations here are scanning ancient religious texts and old government documents smuggled out of Tibet, with plans to make them available through digital libraries.