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Voiping the outback

12 March 08 11:13 GMT

Communications in the remote Australian outback are getting a boost following the development of a system that links the internet to amateur radio technology.

The outback is a vast area of land, but home to only one tenth of Australia's population - and with a large number of small, isolated communities.

Australian James Cameron, who lives in the remote region of Tooraweenah, has pioneered the use of the Internet Radio Linking Project (IRLP) - effectively, two radio stations linking to each other with the internet in the middle - to keep them in touch.

"Voice over IP doesn't work when you're wandering around the mountains in a Bush walk, or in your car, or waiting for a train, or all the other places where an amateur radio can still work," he told BBC World Service's Digital Planet programme.

Mesh networking

IRLP is not exactly new technology, but what it allows is for the internet to be "bolted on" to old-fashioned amateur radio to achieve a different form of communication.

"It's quite amazing that I can pick up my radio while walking and dial a number and talk, and I'm not paying anything for it - there's no companies making money from it," Mr Cameron said.

"I think that's really fun."

Mr Cameron has meanwhile been putting his remote location into use by volunteering to test the wireless capabilities of the $100 laptops that are part of the One Laptop Per Child project.

Until now it has been difficult to precisely establish the range of an individual laptop, owing to difficulties in finding appropriate areas to do such work.

But when Mr Cameron heard the project was looking for ways to test the maximum range, he was keen to volunteer.

"As a radio amateur I put up my hand and said, 'I've got a place that I can test them which is really hot, really dry, never rains'," he said.

He tested the machines by suspending them from trees 1.5m above the ground and found their range was 1.6km, or around a mile.

"I can put them up trees and test how far they go. Especially because there's not much radio noise around here, being on a farm in the outback, I'm a long way from any other radio source."

The One Laptop Per Child XO machines are designed to function as individual nodes to allow mesh networking.

Two placed close enough together can share information between them wirelessly. Place a third close enough to one of them and, even though it might be out of range of the first, it can still share information between all three.

Multiplying this principle out many times results in a mesh network.

"We were able to get test results which were, frankly, astounding," Mr Cameron added.

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