Sri Lanka’s first outdoor wireless computer network is now up and running. Surprisingly, it is not in Colombo. It is not even in any of the other key places. It was installed in Mahawilachchiya, a little known village, 40 km from the nearest town Anuradhapura, and surrounded three sides by the Wilpattu jungle.
A student in the rural areas of Sri Lanka has to pay an average of Rs. 150 for 30 minutes as Internet surfing charges mainly because service is scarce in these areas. This amount does not include transportation costs and the time spent to reach the Internet café. High capital and operating costs have limited Internet access in rural Sri Lanka.
In 2005, the Information and Communication Technology Agency (ICTA) of Sri Lanka, Horizon Lanka Foundation and Enterprise Technology (Pvt) Ltd was awarded a grant by the Pan Asia ICT R&D Grants Programme to develop a low-cost wireless broadband architecture for providing high-speed Internet access services in Mahavilachchiya, Sri Lanka.
On 4 November 2006, Mahavilachchiya, a little known village 40km from the nearest town of Anuradhapura and surrounded three sides by the Vilpattu jungle with no terrestrial or mobile phone networks, became the first village in Sri Lanka with 24-hour Internet access. Over 400 rural students also received ICT education as part of the project.
Mahavilachchiya now has more than 50 PCs and a sophisticated multimedia lab. The majority of the computers are located at the houses of the children attending the Horizon Lanka Academy. These PCs are now connected by using the “Mesh Wireless Technology”giving families direct Internet and email facilities.
Mesh networking comprises of a series of smart digital routers (Meshboxes) that are designed to carry high performance wireless Internet over a wide area using infrared or radio waves. Mesh networking is unique because instead of having a central server which determines how data is passed between computers, the mesh creates a network of equals, so individual computers find the best way to communicate with each other. All the computers are connected together to form a resilient network in such a way that the more devices there are on a network, the more routes there are through it. It can grow organically and will automatically organize itself. The ad hoc nature of the mesh makes it easy to start small and expand where necessary, without the complex reprogramming involved with adding to a traditional, top-down network. If one node were to fail, the network will automatically redirect data through an alternative route.
This unique project sends an important message to marginal communities all over the world. ICTA’s Programme Manager – eSociety Development Initiative, Chitranganie Mubarak commented, “Mahawilachchiya is an outstanding example of promoting inclusion through the use of ICTs. This latest project, which has given Internet access to poor rural families through a mesh network, will certainly be an impetus to other villages.”
At the launch of the e-Village, Mr. Lalith Weeratunga, Secretary to the President of Sri Lanka and Chairman, Telecommunications Regulatory Commission commented that it is the government’s intention to launch similar projects in another 300 villages in remote areas of Sri Lanka.
In a related development on 16 November 2006 when Hon. Mahinda Rajapakse, President of Sri Lanka, delivered the annual budget speech in his capacity as the Minister of Finance, proposed to allocate USD 1 million in the year 2007 for the implementation of e-Villages replicating the Mahawilachchiya project. It is expected that international donors and private sector will make further contributions.
The ICT R&D Grants Programme is directed at encouraging original and innovative information and communications technology (ICT) solutions to development problems. Grants for suitable research and development (R&D) projects are awarded to Asia-Pacific-based organizations on a competitive basis.
It is a joint initiative of the United Nations Development Programme’s Asia-Pacific Development Information Programme (UNDP-APDIP), the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), of Canada, and the Asia Pacific Network Information Centre (APNIC). The Programme is administered by the Asian Media Information and Communication Centre (AMIC) and is overseen by a Committee established by all Programme partners.