banlung district, Ratanakkiri province – Sitting straight and upright in his chair, Mika fixed his eyes forward on the computer screen, the first he had ever seen.
Sitting in a classroom filled with diplomats, government officials, NGO workers and journalists on Monday, the 12-year-old gingerly placed his hands on the keyboard.
“We are the sad ones, you and I, shaking our fists at the darkness,” he typed over and over, spelling out the phrase doled out by the computer’s typing program.
Mika did not know what the phrase meant, but he understood that he was participating in the launch of a project that could allow him to send e-mails from this underdeveloped and remote province to other students across the country.
Combining the latest wireless technology and several well-paid motorcycle drivers, the system is designed to bring e-mail access to solar-powered schools in remote villages here, some of which can be accessed only by oxcart.
“We are closing the digital divide today,” said Bernard Krisher, chairman of the two aid groups sponsoring the project and publisher of The Cambodia Daily, in a speech at the launch.
The e-mail system is somewhat akin to a wheel, with Banlung district as the hub and the villages as the spokes. At least five days a week, five motorcycle drivers wearing flashy blue helmets that read “Internet Moto Man” drive past the hub, a satellite dish in Banlung, which delivers e-mail to a wireless card stored in a box attached to the back of the motorcycle.
After driving past the hub, the drivers wind their way through the province’s bumpy, and often muddy, dirt roads, transporting the e-mail to 14 schools throughout the province. Each school is equipped with what is called an “access point,” valued at $500, that is designed to receive e-mail from the wireless card on the motorcycle when the driver gets within about 1 km of the school.
The system was developed by First Mile Solutions, a US-based firm that is seeking to develop similar e-mail networks throughout the developing world.
“This is the realization of the idea of using a transportation infrastructure to make a network where there is no electricity, phones or cell phone access,” said Amir Hasson, company founder.
For his part, Krisher would like to see the network spread to all the 225 schools that his NGOs—American Assistance for Cambodia and Japan Relief for Cambodia—have built across the country. He said the system will allow students to write school donors, some of whom have requested more contact with the children.
At the ceremony Monday, a group of villagers, including
62 students, listened to speeches by provincial Governor Kham Khoeun, representatives from Japan and the US, and Heng Taikry, director of Calmette Hospital.
“The ramifications of this Internet Village Moto Man project for future health care to the majority of the poor in the remotest areas of the world, now hampered by distance and poverty, are enormous,” Heng Taikry said. “We can now reach those who never had an opportunity in the past to receive trained medical attention.”
Later in the day, at another school about 8 km from the ceremony, a classroom of students watched as Hasson demonstrated the e-mail system.
“I have never used e-mail before,” said Hoeurn Sa-Em, 12, a student at the school. “I want to write to other students and wish them good health and happiness.”
Although the project has the potential to bring economic development through access to valuable information, it remains to be seen how the system will be used.
“The system solves the last [kilometer] problem, but it doesn’t solve the last meter problem,” Hasson said. “We must see what happens between the student and the computer. We have the ability to move information—but what information? That remains uncertain.”