Wi-fi: a new bridge for the digital divide?

July 13, 2011
Scott Foster
Connecting to the Internet using a simple aluminum antenna and a wireless network card could be the best way to narrow Indonesia’s digital divide and bolster economic development, says Dr Onno Purbo. The Jakarta-based expert on information and communication technologies (ICTs) was recently in Ottawa to talk about his vision.

"The goal is to see a knowledge-based society in Indonesia," he told an audience at the Ottawa headquarters of the International Development Research Centre (IDRC). "We need to transform Indonesia’s people into knowledge producers rather than knowledge consumers. And the fastest way to do that is through the Internet.

"That’s why Purbo, who is currently completing an Eisenhower Fellowship in Washington, has tirelessly promoted the use of wireless fidelity, or "wi-fi", Internet connections that rely on radio waves. By holding workshops across his country, Purbo has reached thousands of people who want to learn how to build their own wi-fi systems.

Improving Access

Everything that Purbo preaches, he has practised. His own high speed Internet connection was made possible with a wireless local area network (LAN) and an aluminum antenna. The antenna, which he fastened to the back of his house, uses radio waves to reach access points up to eight kilometres away.

Not including his computer, the wi-fi system costs between CAD $240 and $270, a price tag that is shrinking by the day, according to Purbo.

"The bandwidth is free and can be resold in Internet cafés. People only pay for the connection, and they can share [that cost] by setting up a neighbourhood network." Purbo estimates there are about 2,500 Indonesians throughout the country’s archipelago who have already set up wi-fi connections using radio waves as their guide. Yet widespread access still remains a challenge. There are an estimated four million users among the country’s 231 million people. Even within the university community, only 200 of the country’s 1,300 institutions are on the Internet, says Purbo.

A knowledge-based foundation

It is Purbo’s personal goal to boost these numbers by at least six million in the next few years. However, language poses a significant barrier. While English is the predominant language of the Web, English literacy rates in Indonesia lag behind the country’s neighbours. Purbo publishes prolifically on the Net in Indonesia’s language, and encourages others to do the same. But its difficult to reach "the whole society" because education levels in the country remain relatively low.

For now, Purbo plans to focus on quantity: "to tell as many people as possible" about how to build a wi-fi connection. He is also looking at setting up an Internet chat room where Indonesian students can regularly reach students from other countries. He hopes the dialogue — set up "by students for students" — will help transform Indonesia into a knowledge-based economy. If properly developed through mailing lists and chat rooms, such a local knowledge base would lay the foundations for future businesses, and generate more wealth within Indonesia’s borders.

"It will start with young people and hopefully create a significant change," he says. "The most important factor is human. And everything should be bottom-up, with most of the activity funded by the people themselves."

"Copyleft" — not copyright

Organizations such as IDRC are assisting with this knowledge transfer by heading such initiatives as the Indonesian Digital Library Network (IndonesiaDLN), adds Purbo. The network of 25 Indonesian libraries offers instant access to a bibliographic database of current research papers, theses and dissertations.

Meanwhile, the Internet expert is doing his part to ensure information, academic or otherwise, is universally accessible to those who seek it. In the next few years, he hopes to add to his already impressive collection of published works by writing more than 30 books on information technology — all of which will not be protected by copyright. As part of a growing "copyleft" or "copywrong" movement, he believes the attainment of knowledge should not be limited or restricted in any way.

"I give away my knowledge for free," he says. "In copyright, we have to go through hassles, like going to the patent office. This is too much for me!"

He is not alone. Other "Internet activists" freely publish their know-how on mailing lists. Because the knowledge is widely available, Purbo says people have responded by investing their own money in infrastructure. "Entrepreneurs running small- to medium-sized enterprises are putting their money into ICT businesses and re-investing their profits as their businesses go well."

After Purbo completes his Eisenhower Fellowship, he will begin his third annual road show of seminars and workshops where he plans to discuss how the use of voice transmitters, or telephony, can be incorporated into a wi-fi system.

"I am having way too much fun," he says.

Scott Foster is a freelance writer based in Ottawa.