A Wireless Network for 'Little Lhasa' The volunteers building the "mesh" network in Dharamsala are linking an ancient culture to the modern world on the cheap, using recycled computers and piggybacking on existing towers — even Buddhist and Hindu temples are sporting antennas.
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A Wireless Network for 'Little Lhasa'

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A Wireless Network for 'Little Lhasa'

A Wireless Network for 'Little Lhasa'

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This is DAY TO DAY, I'm Alex Chadwick.


I'm Madeleine Brand. Later in the show, more on the terrorist plot uncovered in London.

CHADWICK: First though, tech contributor Xeni Jardin is back to continue the story of remaking an ancient culture, that of Tibet, with new technology. Xeni's reporting from the Tibetan community of Dharamsala, India on how a group there is using left over equipment and abandoned buildings and old fashioned ingenuity to connect Tibetan exiles to the Internet.

(Soundbite of chanting)

XENI JARDIN reporting:

I'm inside the Gyuto Ramoche temple. Rows of scarlet-robed young monks, refugees from Tibet, hunch over prayer scrolls. Outside, on a rooftop not far away, I spot an antenna. It's one of 30 connection points in a wireless network that's bringing the Internet to this remote region where communication technology has been expensive, unreliable and hard to come by, until now. A few hills away is the home of the man who's hooking up this Tibetan refugee community, Yahel Ben-David. The Israeli engineer learned tech skills in Silicon Valley, survival skills in the Israeli military and moved here to develop a community wireless network. He says he's funded it so far on his own credit cards and some of the maintenance challenges he faces are unique.

Mr. YAHEL BEN-DAVID (Engineer): You can sometimes see like a really huge gorilla sort of monkey just hang on to your antenna and just starts to swing at it and then, you know, try to break it or eat it, and now we use very, very strong equipment, so even monkeys can't break it, and I think there's no where else in the world where you can find monkey-proof equipment.

JARDIN: Each antenna links with others to form what's called a wireless mesh that provides Internet access. Connection points spread out over an area meshed together, so if one or two antennas are down network users can connect by way of another. But if you visit Dharamsala, don't expect to be able to whip out your laptop and log on. For now, this network is mostly for Tibetan organizations and schools. They agree to host equipment and pay a nominal fee to access the Internet and make Web-based phone calls, an important lifeline in this community of displaced people. The amount of bandwidth they have to share is limited, and Yahel says ill advised downloads can overburden the system, as one member group discovered.

Mr. BEN-DAVID: They had a big problem of a network abuse due to porn site surfing. Apparently some of the people who were doing this kind of surfing were quite high in the organization or - I'm not even sure but they, they didn't care that the staff is surfing to this kind of site. What they did care was that practically it's slowing down everybody else.

Unidentified Man: Sorry. Where is it?

JARDIN: The guy on the other end of the line is Punsook Dorji(ph), who serves as a lead technician and is a liaison with local Tibetan community leaders, including members of the government in exile and the Dalai Lama. Punsook found a problem with one of the antennas.

Mr. PUNSOOK DORJI (Technician): I am not getting IP formatted because (unintelligible) not working outside. I don't know what it is. I think I'll have to come up there.

JARDIN: Next thing I know, we're off to meet him in the server room at the Tibetan Children's Village. A school and foster home for young Tibetan refugees, which is also the mesh network's home base.

Mr. DORJI: This is our server room.

JARDIN: A storm last night knocked out power and the uninterruptible power supply, or UPS for short, has kicked in.

JARDIN: Why is it making that noise?

Mr. DORJI: Because it's (bleep) the UPS.

JARDIN: Punsook peers into a network monitoring display in a nearby workroom. He explains techies are considered tradesmen in these parts, all of whom are tagged with a special Hindi suffix, Walla.

Mr. DORJI: Everyone is called - is a taxi Walla, and obviously the ones who sells vegetables are called veggie Walla. And we are computer Wallas.

JARDIN: Computer Wallas here have to be rugged to do routine maintenance. The next day we all wake up around four a.m. and climb a steep hill to fix a malfunctioning antenna. We trudge on goat-worn dirt paths at dawn. Yahel and Punsook aren't alone. Some Tibetan trainees are coming along to learn too. They're all getting remote assistance from a global hacker activist group called Cult of the Dead Cow. The hike would be grueling enough at sea level, but we're at high altitude, and I can barely keep up. I'm about to collapse when the guys stop by a stream and open water bottles.

JARDIN: This must be a very important antenna.

(Soundbite of laughing)

Mr. DORJI: They all are.

JARDIN: At last we reach the antenna perched up on a tall steel tower.

Mr. DORJI: This is a very old tower which we didn't build. It was left here unused for about 20 years by a - some Indian government project that they-failed pretty much before it even started. So they just left towers like that everywhere and those towers are like perfect for us. So we are paying some donations, some rent to the owner of the land and we use the tower.

JARDIN: Along with recycled towers, the group also recycles networking hardware parts from the west and uses free open software to keep costs down. Because tent poles in the area are often built on the highest possible hilltops, Yahel and his team use them for antenna sites and sometimes paint religious symbols on the devices so they'll blend in. Nearby chickens share a barn with a solar powered battery that sustains the network. Why solar? You can't depend on electricity working here, but you can depend on the sun.

(Soundbite of rooster crowing)

JARDIN: A few steps away, Yahel straps on mountain climbing gear and carefully ascends the tower. His task today is to reposition its antenna to improve network performance. Yahel and the Tibetan techies on the ground shout instructions back and forth.

Mr. DORJI: Waterproof, not waterproof. Okay.

JARDIN: After much toiling in the hot Indian sun, Yahel tightens the last screws and climbs down. The network signal is stronger now, as Yahel confirms with a test on his laptop. Later, after we drive back, Punsook explains that while the work is exhausting, the group hopes to do more of it.

Mr. DORJI: The aim is to replicate this project in other parts of the country.

JARDIN: It seems like much of the hard work is the first time.

Mr. DORJI: Yes, yes. First time is always the harder, but we started it well so half of our work is, you can see, accomplished.

JARDIN: Yahel says over two thousand computers are connected to the Dharamsala network already, and as his team's work expands, he has plenty to motivate him during rough days.

Mr. BEN-DAVID: I enjoy the challenges, the technological one, the environmental one, and adding to the fun of it, it's helping people. It's giving good service to people, giving good education and hope to people. It's definitely very good and encouraging.

JARDIN: And that hard work is paying off. The Tibetan Technology Center has attracted the attention of tech activists throughout India and overseas. In October, the group will host a community wireless summit to bring all of those organizations together. For NPR News, I'm Xeni Jardin.

CHADWICK: And here's some technology, digital photos and more information about Xeni's series at our Web site, NPR.org.

And tomorrow, Xeni will have a final installment, a taste of modern Tibet, from its capital city, Lhasa.

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