Wi-Fi Bridges Indonesia’s Digital Divide

Wi-Fi Bridges Indonesia’s Digital Divide

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Written By Eric Sandler

By Craig Liddell

Spread across the world’s largest archipelago of thousands of islands between Asia and Australia, Indonesia is highly diverse in its ethnicity with more than 300 local languages.

Ravaged by years of war and turmoil, the country recently faced the Asian financial crisis, then the fall of President Suharto after 32 years in office, amid continued inter-ethnic and religious conflict.

Indonesia currently faces several challenges. These include the implementation of

International Monetary Fund (IMF) mandated reforms of the banking sector, making the transition to a popularly-elected government after four decades of authoritarianism, and addressing charges of cronyism and corruption, among others.

In this context, the Indonesia government decided to increase fuel, electricity, and phone rates in January this year. Prices for the Indonesia telco tariff increased an average of 30 percent.

Five days later, the first Public Gatekeeper of VoIP Merdeka began. Their independence was declared soon after.

Voice over IP (VoIP) is a term used for a set of facilities that manage the delivery of voice information using Internet Protocol (IP). Essentially, this means the transmission of voice information in digital form as discrete packets by contrast to the traditional circuit-committed protocols of the public switched telephone network (PSTN).

A major advantage of VoIP and Internet telephony is that it avoids the tolls charged with an ordinary telephone service.

VoIP Perjuangan, or ‘VoIP Struggle’, as it was originally known, was established to enable PC-to-PC communication between any Internet user in the country using a call numbering system chosen by the Internet community.

Spearheaded by Jakarta-based Dr Onno Purbo, one of Indonesia’s most prominent information technology (IT) advocates, the group changed their name because they feared politicisation due to similarities between VoIP Perjuangan and the ruling political party. They were later renamed VoIP Merdeka, or ‘Liberated VoIP’.

Dr Purbo, who believes this is the only community based movement organised through mailing list discussion, is humble about the organisation’s motives. “To build Indonesian people’s own telco without Indonesian telco,” he smiles.

In 1884, the Dutch colonial government established a private company to provide postal services and domestic and, subsequently, international telegraph services. Telephone services were first made available in Indonesia in 1882 and, until 1906, were provided by privately-owned companies based on a 25-year government license.

Later, they would become government departments. Telecoms are now provided by PT Telekomunikasi Indonesia, Tbk (TELKOM Indonesia).

Indonesia, with a population of over 210 million, had seven and a half million fixed lines and around nine million mobile phone subscribers by the end of last year.

VoIP “tricks the legal system” by providing a non-commercial service that is not connected to the incumbent telco. This subverts requirements for a licence.

Just over 2800 users have registered. Seventy registered gatekeepers are on the books, although Dr Purbo concedes that most gatekeepers in proxy servers do not normally register their prefix.

The central philosophy of VoIP Merdeka is independence. Driven by volunteers, Dr Purbo is keen to avoid funding from government sources, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or the World Bank.

VoIP Merdeka relies on donations of bandwidth and hard disk space. Their main objective is enable low-cost communication for the masses based on the non-proprietary H.323 protocol.

“The H.323 standard provides a foundation for audio, video, and data communications across IP-based networks, including the Internet,” according to the Protocol Directory. “H.323 is an umbrella recommendation from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) that sets standards for multimedia communications over Local Area Networks (LANs) that do not provide a guaranteed Quality of Service (QoS).”

Neighbours in six countries have also jumped on board VoIP Merdeka. These include Singapore, Canada, Germany, England, Sudan, and Japan.

The network receives approximately 1000 calls per day through the major gatekeepers.

Dr Purbo says the Indonesian ISP Association (APJII) fully supports the initiative. “In fact, they were the one really backing us from the early days. They invested in the first gatekeeper for public users of VoIP Merdeka.”

The Indonesian government have been less forthcoming. “Government is very slow and unresponsive,” he says. “As usual, we don’t rely and don’t need their support or approval for all our activities.”

Indonesia’s Directorate General of Post and Telecommunication has promised not to take action against the collective as long as the service is not commercialised and no connection to the PSTN is attempted.

VoIP Merdeka is one project in a long list of initiatives supported by Dr Purbo.

A strong advocate of wireless for developing countries, he believes wireless fidelity (WiFi) has the potential to narrow Indonesia’s digital divide and bolster economic development.

But this is not without challenges. He says the major problem is the education and skill level of technicians who install the equipment. “Those guys always solve their problems by putting power amplifiers, which ruins our frequency reuse scheme.”

He explains, “WiFi is a shared frequency system and, therefore, frequency reuse is very critical for Wide Area Network (WAN) deployment.”

The technology is only good for five to eight kilometre distances. For any distance above, they piggyback over normal fibre and satellite carriers. “There are a couple of non-Telkom operators,” Dr Purbo explains. “We do hope to have more.”

His own set up is a working example of both the benefits of wireless and the community approach he advocates.

Dr Purbo runs a WiFi connection twenty-four hours a day at 11Mbps. His gateway is a Pentium 1 166MHz, 64Mbyte run on Linux Mandrake 8.0. A small 19dBi parabolic antenna is used to reach an access point one kilometre away.

Ten computers are connected to a Local Area Network (LAN) through a 10Mbps second-hand hub. By drilling a hole in his wall, Dr Purbo also connects his neighbour to the network.

Last year, he was awarded an Eisenhower Fellowship, whose Single Nation or Single Region Program brings to the United States (US) twenty emerging leaders in fields important to the future of their country.

Each Eisenhower Fellow develops their own professional schedule based on their interests.

Dr Purbo decided to explore how the Americans solve the digital divide in their country. But he now realises their problems and focus in rural areas is somewhat different to Indonesia.

Rural Americans tend to be quite wealthy and literate. Their major concern is access to fibre or ADSL in their homes.

By contrast, residents of regional Indonesia are poor and illiterate. Their major concern is reading and writing in the Indonesian language. “Not to mention, a need for information and access to the Internet,” according to Dr Purbo.

Despite the outcomes of the research, he shows his eternal optimism by saying the experience enabled him to “make a lot of friends and learn something in the process.”

His vision, he says with a smile, “is to see a knowledge based society in Indonesia. I would like to educate Indonesians and enable them to build people’s based telecommunication infrastructure using WiFi and VoIP.”

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