In 1997, we finally got the Internet in Nepal. Unfortunately, it was only available in the capital, Kathmandu, which is very far from my village of Nangi. But almost immediately, I started thinking of ways we could get Nangi online. I was already familiar with the Internet from studying in the United States, and I had a lot of ideas about how being online could improve life in Nangi.
For the next four years, I talked to a lot of people about how we could get connected, but nothing seemed feasible. Nangi is in a remote, mountainous part of the country, so we didn’t have wireline phone service. That meant the traditional methods of connecting to the Internet were out, and satellite Internet was prohibitively expensive.
In 2001, I was speaking to a reporter from BBC Online News, and I asked him to help me get in touch with people who could help me with connecting Nangi. So, after some discussion, he wrote an article and put it up on the BBC’s site. Because of that article people from around the world started reaching out to me and offering to help us connect. The next year, I had a group of students from Europe and the US come to my village to meet with me and talk about how we could get Nangi online.
At that point, Pokhara, the nearest big city to Nangi, had the Internet as well. Unfortunately, Pokhara was still about a day-and-a-half walk down the mountain, which made checking your email kind of inconvenient. We decided to start experimenting with WiFi technology to see if, somehow, we could get a signal from Pokhara up to Nangi. At that point, WiFi was still an emerging technology. People had used it indoors in a compound, but no one had tried doing a long distance, point-to-point link.
I had some friends in America send me some indoor wireless routers, however, antennas were not available in the market. Because of the civil war, it was illegal to import and use any type of wireless devices in Nepal. So we started building antennas – different kinds and sizes of antennas – and we started testing them at different ranges. At first we were trying to send a signal over two kilometres, and then five kilometres, 10 kilometres, 15, and so on. Eventually, after a year and a half of testing, we were able to connect my village with a repeater station that was 34 kilometres from the city, with my village being six kilometres away on the other side.
I realized that if we could connect my village to the Internet, we could use that same model to connect villages all over the country. At the time, most people in these communities still didn’t know what the Internet was. They had some idea of how computers worked, but they had not heard of the Internet. We actually had people from other villages come to us and a few other places that were connected so we could show them, how it worked, how to send an email, all these things, and they were interested right away. One of the things that really interested them was IP telephone calls. At that time, there was no telephone connectivity at all in any of the villages in the rural areas, so it was difficult for people to speak to relatives who had moved either to the cities or overseas for work. Yahoo Messenger became very popular for the same reason.
Initially we had just thought we’d expand it to a handful of other, nearby villages. Maybe five or 10 villages in the region, for local communication, that was our goal. We had no idea that people from other villages, many more villages, and other people from other districts were interested in it. We ended up becoming very popular and we started expanding the network slowly from one village, to the next village, to the next village, and, then to next district and the next district. In the last 15 years we’ve expanded our network to 15 districts and over 200 villages, and it’s still growing.
As the technology has improved over the last few years, people have been able to do more and more with these connections. So, now you have telemedicine happening, where people can speak to doctors in the cities. This has made a huge difference in the health of the community. The students in the secondary schools are using the Internet all the time for research and are growing up digitally literate. There are online remittance services now, which is hugely important in a country like Nepal. We’re bringing banking to a lot of these communities. Moreover, we are working on creating smart villages step-by-step by bringing as many ICT services as possible for the benefit of rural people. Now people have slowly started using smart phone and tablets even in the rural areas creating a new market for online service.
We’re not going to change these communities overnight by just bringing in the Internet, but over the last 15 years, we have seen a lot of things start to change. People are healthier, more people have a basic level of digital literacy, and people are more connected. These are the sort of changes community networks can bring, and we’re only getting started.