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Thursday, 21 November, 2002, 02:00 GMT
Pedal power drives Laos net dreams
Diplomatically isolated and desperately poor, the country has only recently taken the first tentative steps towards cyberspace.
But stroll around the capital, Vientiane, and you can now find a number of internet cafes offering web access for just a few cents per minute.
Only four high schools in Laos have computers. Many students have to wait months before even getting a go.
The students are brimming over with enthusiasm for their new-found window on the world.
"I like to search for information, like CNN news or BBC," says one 16-year-old in Pakse. "I like to find out about new movies or about astronautics, like on the Nasa website."
The pupils huddle round and gasp with excitement as they home in on sites about the boy band Westlife, or about Manchester United - role models that their parents and grandparents, who grew up during the decades of war and isolation, would scarcely recognise.
If high schools are just starting to get to grips with the possibilities of the internet, rural Laos is even further behind.
About two hours drive north of Vientiane lies the village of Phon Kam. The village is a cluster of wooden, thatched houses on stilts, which lies several kilometres down a dirt track.
The few vehicles that pass throw up clouds of red dust which hangs in the humid air. In the rainy season, the track becomes a squelching quagmire, which bakes hard into treacherous ridges and potholes in the intense heat that follows.
It is the last place on earth you would expect to find the internet. But soon that is what Phon Kam is going to get.
Phon Kam is one of five villages which are part of a pioneering project to link up remote villages with each other and the wider world.
Like the school internet centres, the remote PC project was set up by the Jhai Foundation. The foundation was set up by a US war veteran, Lee Thorn, and Bounthanh Phommasathit, who fled her ancestral home during the intense bombardment of Laos during the Vietnam War.
Jhai had been working with the villagers to dig wells and make handicrafts. But what the villagers were crying out for was access to the internet.
Jhai enlisted some of the sharpest minds in Silicon Valley to devise a machine which could operate in harsh conditions and with no technical support.
Instead of a hard drive with moving and delicate parts, the Jhai PC relies on flash memory chips to store data.
And the power supply? The solution is simple: pedal power.
Because of its simplicity, the Jhai PC can be powered by a car battery charged with bicycle cranks.
Each village PC is connected via wireless internet cards to a solar-powered hilltop relay station, which passes the signal on to the nearest town of Phon Hong, 30km away. The town is in turn connected to both the Lao telephone system and to the internet.
The equipment should be up and running in Phon Kam by early 2003 and the villagers are itching to get started.
The network will enable them to make local telephone calls and even, for the first time, to have the pleasure of speaking regularly to their relatives abroad.
"There will be a lot of benefits for us," says Vandone Chanthavong, who heads the Women's Union in Phon Kam. "We will be able to communicate between villages and also we can connect to people in other countries.
"We can help our students get information and it will improve the economy of the village."
The villagers now grow surpluses of rice and other crops, thanks in part to organic farming methods that Jhai helped introduce.
But to make a profit, they need accurate and timely information about prices. So the computer network will help them to decide whether it is worth making the 60km round trip to the market in Phon Hong.
"Many families are very poor," says Vandone. "When people are sick, often we don't have money to buy medicines, but if we have the internet, we can advertise our chickens for sale to other villages, and that way we can pay for the medicines."
The women of the villages produce woven textiles, and they plan to use internet marketing to sell their wares to Germany and the US.
Simple spreadsheets will help the villagers with budgeting and setting up new businesses.
And when the work is done, the villagers hope to have some fun.
"We've never used the internet before, so we don't know what's there," says Vandone's husband Khamphan. "But we would love to learn and explore."
Who knows, before long the teenagers of Phon Kam may soon be surfing the net looking for Westlife and Manchester United, and making their own first leap across the digital divide.
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