Remote Nepal villages bridging digital gap with local cloud

Social enterprise Nepal Wireless has connected 175 faraway villages to the Internet, giving a boost to education, telemedicine, and local businesses. The next step is leveraging local cloud services to bring down costs.

Over a decade ago, Mahabir Pun initially dreamnt of connecting his village to the Internet in order to help his students communicate with their friends overseas. He eventually realized that emerging wireless technologies were also the answer to many problems that rural areas faced such as teacher shortages, lack of doctors and hospitals, local trade problems, and a lack of emergency communications.

wood pc
Some PCs are cobbled together from parts, and sometimes casings made from wood. (source: Nepal Wireless)

In 2002, his social enterprise Nepal Wireless successfully connected his village in the Himalayan region to the Internet using a simple Wi-Fi router and homebuilt antenna. Fast forward 12 years, there are now over 175 villages connected in over 15 districts, with the count growing by 10 to 15 villages every year.

"Our focus is to increase digital and Internet literacy in the remote rural areas of Nepal by delivering them with Internet connectivity," Pun told ZDNet. Internet access to those villages now enables distance learning, telemedicine, e-commerce, and a communications network in areas neglected by commercial service providers.

Just five years ago, Internet access in some areas of Nepal cost as much as around US$3,000 per megabit per second (Mbps). Now it's at a much more affordable rate of slightly under US$200 partly thanks to the efforts of Nepal Wireless.

To achieve even better cost-efficiencies, Pun has been adopting a local cloud service approach. "We are providing educational content through local servers that connect to the villages through an intranet. We also provide a video conferencing service for telemedicine through the intranet. And we plan to provide school management services for the community schools through these local servers," he said.

relay tower
Remote relay towers have to be sturdy enough to withstand bad weather. (source: Nepal Wireless)

"Right now, we are helping schools and villages to build websites for their villages and schools. We are planning to host these websites on our own servers in Nepal. That way, the villagers can access their websites much faster than if they were routed through an international network. In future we will also deploy further cloud services if the cost for Internet bandwidth goes down significantly," added Pun.

Mahabir Pun, leader of the Nepal Wireless team.

Building the network to reach these remote areas has been a pretty steep challenge. One of the most obvious obstacles has been the mountaineous terrain, where most of its over 30 relay stations are located at peaks ranging from 3,000 to 5,000 meter elevation.

To overcome the challenge of powering those remote stations, more than half of them have the capability to run on solar power, said Pun. Currently, Nepal Wireless uses Cambium Networks for its more than 80 Point-to-Point (PTP) links for backhaul and 60 Point-to-Multipoint base stations installed across the mountain range, with the longest PTP link at 59km. It currently is able to deliver a throughput of 10 to 14Mbps, at 5.8Ghz and 2.4Ghz.