Center for A Rural Alternative
|location: Home | Telecom | Limon|
Project Description: Rural Alternative Center of El Limon, Dominican Republic
The last decade has seen the emergence of a new global cultural, intellectual, and commercial commons, known as the Internet. The Internet has had a profound impact on the developed world, and is rapidly moving into the cities of the developing world. However, the ongoing failure to bring access to the world’s poorer rural areas has deepened the gap between haves and have-nots, worsening the situation commonly know as the “digital divide”. A model for helping close this “digital divide” has been developed and demonstrated at the Rural Alternative Center in the village of El Limon, Dominican Republic. The model successfully address three key issues: Infrastructure, applications, and cultural integration.
Unlike older media such as radio and television, lack of infrastructure remains the key barrier to rural Internet use in the developing world. Despite a global recognition that modern communication tools are essential for rural development, progress has become mired in an unfortunate cycle. The rural Internet user base remains too small to justify the development of services and content appropriate for this audience. And since the available services and content are considered to be of limited value to the rural poor, it is difficult to justify the expense of installing the infrastructure that would justify the content development.. We feel the best way to break out of this cycle and move ahead is by demonstrating effective infrastructure solutions in actual rural use, running available applications that, though not ideal, best address rural needs.
Successful Infrastructure solutions must be affordable to install, and easy to maintain with a minimum of outside resources. The needed infrastructure consists of two parts: connectivity and computers. The most effective approach to connectivity is to build outward from existing urban networks. The vast majority of the world’s rural population lives within 100 km of an urban center, and most urban centers now have, or will soon have, broadband connectivity. The popular Wi-Fi networks, and their longer-range Wi-Max variant, provide a generic, inexpensive solution for broadband connectivity in this distance range. The second choice, satellite, is expensive, both financially and environmentally, and the common services provide only slow upstream speeds, a problem for teleconferencing and voice telephone applications. Even where great distances make a satellite connection necessary, Wi-Fi is usually appropriate for sharing one connection between several nearby villages.
In terms of the computer itself, the basic rural problem is the lack of electricity, with grid service being erratic or nonexistent. Providing power is often more expensive than the rest of the infrastructure put together, making the common desktop computer impractical. Laptops are expensive, and very difficult to maintain in the field. In El Limon, the best solution to date is the VIA ITX motherboard, a generic pc-compatible computer that only draws 25 watts (plus a standard flat-panel display). It is practical to power the ITX from solar panels or (better yet, as in El Limon) a water powered micro-hydroelectric generator where a suitable water source is available. The ITX solution has the added advantage that hardware and software skills learned on it are directly transferable to any pc.
The applications provided in the El Limon telecenter have been determined by village needs and interests. The most active participants in the project have been village children and youth, so it is not surprising that the most popular activity has been keyboard chat. Chat is actually an effective educational tool, since it is a powerful incentive to improve reading and writing skills, very important in a low-literacy environment. Chat also addresses social needs, with previously isolated youth now having friends in Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Cuba, and other Spanish-speaking countries. Web browsing is used extensively for school homework, as well as for downloading music. Email is part of the curriculum, but is mostly used by several adults involved in development work. A community telemedicine project is now being readied, which will connect the four villages of the network with their primary care clinic in the nearby city of Ocoa. Local residents will be trained as doctor’s assistants, and will be connected to the clinic by audio and webcam. Village response to the telemedicine project has been particularly enthusiastic, and it is expected that telemedicine will become a major driving force behind the installation of rural networks.
Social Integration and Sustainability of the Model
Sustainability requires that the community take ownership of the project. Integration is actively promoted in every aspect of the project. Villagers participated in the initial installation of the radio repeater and the computer installation, and youth are learning to maintain the equipment. The computer center follows the community telecenter format, with five computers available for public use. The telecenter is located in the village school, and also functions as a de-facto youth center in the evenings. Village youth play a major role in the telecenter operation. The project operates under the elected CAREL board of directors, who are mostly villagers from El Limon. Most board members also participate in daily operations. As a result, the Internet project, which has been in operation since 1998, has effectively integrated into the community; Internet use is now a regular part of the local youth culture. This has been reflected in much more interest in education; the number of village youth traveling to intermediate and high school in Ocoa has increased from three students to fifteen over the last few years. Other applications of general benefit, now under development, will continue to expand the base of villagers benefiting from the project. In particular, it is expected that, within the next few years, use of the network for telemedicine and the coordination of agricultural production and marketing will also have become a normal part of village life.