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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 April, 2004, 06:23 GMT 07:23 UK
Radio mail links Pacific islands
By Alfred Hermida
BBC News Online technology editor

Users at a PeopleFirst e-mail station
PeopleFirst Network was set up in 2001
A internet connection speed of 2Kbps may not sound like much, but it is providing a lifeline for the people of the Solomon Islands.

The struggling South Pacific nation has endured years of bloodshed, corruption and economic decline.

But for the past four years, the People's First Network has tried to mend fences by using high frequency radio to send and receive e-mail.

The project was recently a finalist for a Unesco rural communications prize.

Building bridges

The Solomon Islands consists of some 850 islands, mostly undeveloped, spread out over a wide area of the Pacific.

The two main ways of getting in touch with people are short-wave radios or satellite telephones.

But radio offers no privacy, whereas satellite phones are too expensive for most to use regularly.

The PeopleFirst Network stepped into this gap in 2001.

It was set up with funding from the United Nations Development Programme as a way of connecting the remote island to the outside world, as well as each other.

But another aim was to help overcome the legacy of fear and mistrust created by years of fighting between rival ethnic gangs from Malaita and Guadalcanal.

"We thought that by connecting people together, they would know more about each other and bring peace to the country," said Joe Rausi of the PeopleFirst Network.

"By installing e-mail, people are able to interact more with each other, talk about the things that they need and discuss issues by e-mail," he told BBC News Online.

Send and receive

At the moment that are 14 e-mail stations in schools or clinics in rural areas. The stations are owned by the community, with decisions taken by a committee of village chiefs and religious leaders.

"We are using old technology but it is robust. This laptop is quite old but it does the work. In the end we have to look at what is affordable in villages
Joe Rausi, PeopleFirst Network
The stations are a pretty basic affair, consisting of an ageing laptop, radio and modem. The kit is powered by a car battery, which itself runs off a solar panel as in most areas there is no electricity.

The total cost of the equipment runs to around $8,000.

At the heart of the operation is an internet cafe in the capital, Honiara, which connects to the internet via satellite.

Several times a day, each e-mail station will connect to the hub in Honiara and transfer any messages.

The connection speed is around 2Kbps, meaning a typical text e-mail sent by rural villagers takes about 10 seconds to transmit.

In February, more than 700 messages were sent over the network and almost 900 received. Most of the mail was between family members in the Solomon Islands, with just 20% going overseas.

The system runs on software called WaveMail, which works with the HF radios in villages.

"We are using old technology but it is robust," said Mr Rausi. "This laptop is quite old but it does the work. In the end we have to look at what is affordable in villages."

"The People First Network is not about the technology. It is about improving the standard of living of people in rural areas.

"The social side is more important than the technology."

Bandwidth issues

As for the future, the project is looking to move beyond e-mail and explore using the system for distance-learning and e-commerce.

E-mail station in the Solomon Islands
The e-mail stations connect to the capital several times a day
The big hurdle here is bandwidth. But the People First Network is working with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on using their Tek project.

Researchers at the Boston institute are developing a search engine designed for people with a slow net connection.

"if you are living in a rural village and you want information, you would send a message to Tek," explained Mr Rausi.

"It browses the net for that information and once it is found, it sends that it direct to your computer and stores it on your C drive."

You can hear more on the PeopleFirst Network on the BBC World Service programme, Go Digital

World's poor to get own search engine
15 Jul 03  |  Technology
Timeline: Solomon Islands
19 Nov 03  |  Country profiles
Country profile: Solomon Islands
05 Nov 03  |  Country profiles
Lawless Solomon area now 'safe'
19 Nov 03  |  Asia-Pacific

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