Page last updated at 10:26 GMT, Thursday, 5 February 2009

Riding Tunisia's information superhighway by bus

Children accessing the internet on a visiting bus

By Sylvia Smith
BBC News, Ain Ek Misha

A luxury coach heading in the direction of a remote, picturesque village in Tunisia is not an unusual sight.

But the bus on its way to Ain Ek Misha is not in the business of moving tourists about - its purpose is to educate rather than transport.

This bus, like many others, has been transformed into a mobile internet centre, and it travels around Tunisia teaching students of all ages how to log on, surf the net, and obtain information electronically that can help them in their studies and in finding jobs.

Internet bus and satellite dish
These buses bring the internet to remote villages not tourists

The coach is accompanied by an auxiliary pick-up van, carrying the satellite dish and stand.

Technician Yusuf Saeed is installing the dish just behind the bus.

He says that there are occasional natural barriers which can cause problems.

"When we encounter mountains, then it can take quite a bit of manoeuvring to get the connection."

"Otherwise we are using the same technology as elsewhere to provide broadband to the computers on the bus."

This "technology" includes censorship barriers, which jam sites deemed sensitive and filter e-mails from groups and individuals under surveillance.

I felt that it was important that all Tunisians should have a level playing field
Soumaya Chelbi
Association Pour La Solidarite Numerique

Tunisia has some of the strictest internet censorship laws in the world, which have drawn criticism from organisations such as Reporters Without Borders.

For those in Tunisia interested in human rights and political pluralism, enthusiasm for the technology is dampened by the limits put on internet use by the government.

Despite the restrictions it has imposed, the government says its policy is that all citizens should have access to computers - even those in remote villages.

Remote access

Ain Ek Misha is just one of a network of villages served by a fleet of buses who bring the digital age to those who do not have electricity, an internet cafe, or regular transport to a large town.

Internet bus and local children
The buses help keep families in touch with friends and relatives overseas

The buses, which visit twice a week, are provided by the Association Pour La Solidarite Numerique (Association for Digital Solidarity).

Soumaya Chelbi, who founded the organisation, believes that she has managed to bring the digital age to even the most remote and inaccessible parts of the country.

"I felt that it was important that all Tunisians should have a level playing field," she says.

"The important thing is to ensure that people know how to use the internet wisely."

With a small workforce, the government-run enterprise began with just one bus and now has more than 20 making trips between the capital, Tunis, and outlying areas.

The service is free and users are enthusiastic about the benefits.

"My older brother is working in Europe," says 14-year-old Ahmad.

I am teaching my mother and my grandmother so they can learn something new
Ahmad, 14

"He tells me what life is like in France and says I must work hard at school."

He in turn has brought his grandmother along so that she can try her hand at logging on for the first time.

"For me it is easy," Ahmad says.

"I am teaching my mother and my grandmother so they can learn something new."

Why would his mother and grandmother want to use the internet? Not surprisingly, the answer is to keep in touch with relatives abroad.

Crossing the divide

Being able to link generations like this costs relatively little, but the benefits are huge.

Providing each passenger with access to the internet has enabled the less well-off to integrate better into the work force and helped even out social divisions.

"There is very little opportunity for work around here," explains Maryam, who is looking for work as a secretary.

"There are no offices, I really need to find a way of earning a living in the capital, Tunis. I come here and search for jobs."

young boys accessing the internet
There is a growing demand to loosen internet censorship

She tells me that if she sees something interesting and that she is qualified for, then she applies immediately, online.

The fleet of internet buses is garaged overnight in the grounds of the industrial park just outside Tunis where Panasonic, Sony, Samsung and other big names in the electronics world have their headquarters.

The buses are all fitted out with equipment donated by the local offices of these international companies.

The same companies also service the computers and ensure the software is up-to-date.

They realise that increasing the country's familiarity with the internet is good for them, as well as for Tunisia.

In a country where the digital revolution has led to the creation of many new jobs, these buses are providing key access to the internet highway for thousands.

But as the number of Tunisian internet users grows, so too does their demand that the web serve human rights, as well as the economy.

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