Mike Cassidy of San Jose Mercury News has written a nice piece on Mahabir Pun’s work – http://www.mercurynews.com/ci_15318738?IADID=Search-www.mercurynews.com-www.mercurynews.com&nclick_check=1 (Mike – we hope it’s okay to publish it here as well)
Cassidy: Mahabir Pun inspires digital revolution in the Himalayas
By Mike Cassidy
Mercury News Columnist
Posted: 06/17/2010 01:11:44 PM PDT
Updated: 06/18/2010 07:28:46 AM PDT
It’s not every day that you get a request to connect on LinkedIn.
OK, it is, but this particular one stopped me cold: Mahabir Pun was looking to reconnect. Mahabir Pun. He’s a guy I’ve written about, a guy who lives at 7,000-plus feet in a Himalayan village of subsistence farmers in Nepal. He is a dreamer and, it turns out, a doer.
Back in 2003 I wrote about how with the help of a San Jose-based family foundation and others the University of Nebraska graduate had returned to Nangi in Nepal to help start a high school and to try to connect his remote village to the Internet.
Crazy, right? Bring the Internet to a village of 800 without telephones or electricity or really much hope. Except it wasn’t crazy. This Mahabir Pun did it. A guy I got to know through the e-mails that he would travel for hours by foot and bus to send from an Internet cafe got it done. He had a lot of help, including from a college kid who recently graduated from Stanford University medical school.
And connecting Nangi to the rest of the world wasn’t the half of it. Or even 1/80 of it.
“Now more than 80 villages in nine districts of Nepal have been connected to the network,” Pun wrote to me. “The approximate population of the area covered by the wireless network is about 60,000. We are adding more villages with time and still are working to connect more villages.”
For those of us in Silicon Valley, the Internet has become like running water. We use it every day, many times a day, without much of a thought. But for the yak herders and farmers in the Himalayas, the ability to suddenly reach around the world, or even to the next village, is transformational. The initiative, called the Nepal Wireless Network, relies on solar power and relay stations to connect the remote villages with an Internet service provider in Pokhara, about 22 miles from Nangi, as the crow flies.
Pun wrote that villagers are using the Web to communicate on online bulletin boards. He and those helping him have introduced telemedicine to the mountains. A big city hospital is connected to nine rural hospitals and clinics. Students at the school in Nangi, which has expanded to K-12, are logging on to the Internet to do research.
“People are using the Internet phone to make international calls to their relatives working abroad. We are providing virtual ATM service for the tourists to pay their bills and get cash in the mountain villages. We are also using the network for a trial to get weather information for a mountain village through the Internet. We are working with a researcher from the University of Maryland to monitor the climate change in the Himalayas for which we will collect real time data through the Internet.”
Imagine. All that in seven years. Pun is the first to point out that he’s gotten a lot of help from an army of volunteers and donors. Some of them learned of Nangi while trekking in the area. Others read about Pun on his site at www.nepalwireless.net or in media reports as his effort became more widely known. Mark Michalski, the former Stanford med student, heard about Pun from his friend Robin Shields. The two traveled to Nepal in 2003, armed with a $10,000 Donald A. Strauss Foundation grant and eventually got an Internet connection running in Nangi.
“The funny thing now, looking back, there was very little doubt in our minds that this thing would actually work,” says Michalski, who also says some thought the idea was nuts. “And I think Mahabir had a ton to do with that. His confidence that this could work, in fact, he was sure that it would work, made us sure that it would work.”
Philine Rallapalli, who oversees a modest family foundation in San Jose with her husband, Kris, says she sensed the same thing about Pun. When the couple met with him in 2002 to talk about his school idea, she saw a man who was determined to better villagers’ lives.
The Huguenin Rallapalli Foundation donated $16,000 to build the school, and it’s contributed thousands more since. Kris Rallapalli says the results, with the school and the network, have been phenomenal.
“He is so committed to the cause,” he says, “without him, the village would not have done what it’s done. And it’s not just the village. It’s all of Nepal. People like him are the future for these countries to get ahead.”
Pun says he’s determined to help his country do just that. The next step, he says, is to open a four-year college in Nangi by 2015. “We don’t know yet how we will do it,” he says, “but we won’t give up.”
I wouldn’t bet against him.
Contact Mike Cassidy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 408-920-5536. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/mikecassidy.