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A Wireless Network for 'Little Lhasa'

A spider's web of old power and phone lines snake overhead in Dharamsala. Communications lines are often down for days, making a new wireless network even more appealing.
/ Xeni Jardin, NPR
Xeni Jardin, NPR
A spider's web of old power and phone lines snake overhead in Dharamsala. Communications lines are often down for days, making a new wireless network even more appealing.

Inside the Gyuto Ramoche temple in the northern Indian city of Dharamsala, the scene is timeless, seemingly centuries old: Rows of scarlet-robed young monks from Tibet, hunched over prayer scrolls in mediation.

But outside, an antenna sits on a rooftop not far away. It's one of 30 connection points in a wireless network that's bringing the Internet to this remote region where communication technology has been expensive, unreliable and hard to come by — until now.

The monks in meditation over those scrolls are a key inspiration for creating the wireless network. They are refugees from Tibet and part of a community of hundreds of thousands of refugees. Web access promises better communication, a path to preserve Tibetan culture and a way to tell their stories to the outside world.

Much of the so-called mesh network taking root in Dharamsala is the work of Yahel Ben-David. The Israeli engineer earned his technology chops in Silicon Valley and his survival skills in the Israeli military. The community wireless network, he says, is funded so far by his own credit cards. He faces unique maintenance challenges — like figuring out the best way to monkey-proof an antenna.

Each antenna links with others to form what's called a wireless mesh that provides Internet access. Connection points that are spread out over an area "mesh" together, so if one or two antennas are down, network users can connect with another in the mesh.

But don't expect to be able to whip out your laptop and log on if you visit Dharamsala — for now, the network is mostly for Tibetan organizations and schools, who agree to host equipment and pay a nominal fee to access the Internet and make Web-based phone calls.

Ben-David and his colleagues — whom locals refer to as "computer-wallas" in Hindi slang — are getting remote assistance from a global hacker activist group called Cult of the Dead Cow. The crew also recycles networking hardware parts from the West, and uses free, open-source software run the network and keep costs down.

Because Buddhist temples in the area are often built on the highest possible hilltops, Ben-David and his team use them to mount antennas. Sometimes they paint religious symbols on the devices so they'll blend in. Most of the antennas are solar-powered — you can't depend on electricity working all the time in this part of the world, but you can depend on the sun.

All the hard work is beginning to pay off. About 2,000 computers are connected to the Dharamsala network, and the Tibetan Technology Center has attracted the attention of tech activists throughout India and the world. In October, the group will host a community wireless summit to bring all of those organizations together.

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Xeni Jardin
Xeni Jardin can be heard on NPR’s Day to Day, offering technology insights for listeners nationwide. Jardin is also a contributing writer for Wired Magazine, as well as a tech culture journalist and co-editor of the collaborative weblog, the award-winning "Directory of Wonderful Things."