People First Network: Radio email for the Solomon Islands

Ingo Mackintosh

Imagine the amazement of farmers who are able to receive technical advice on how to deal with a poultry disease. Or of the residents of remote rural villages who can find out about job opportunities and submit their applications well before the deadline. All thanks to radio email. In the Solomon Islands, People First Network (PFnet) is pioneering a communications model based on radio email technology and community ownership.

Focused on facilitating communications, networking and information sharing for rural development and peace building, the project has established a high-frequency (HF) radio email network, a central Internet cafe in the capital Honiara as the revenue-earning base, and a development web portal, People First Network.

The project’s strategy is to establish many basic email-only, operator-assisted access sites across the country, and to allow them to evolve into email cafés or even full telecentres in response to community demand. The access sites are managed by village committees, who identify the operators and are involved in the ongoing operations. They work with PFnet to raise awareness of the facility among the entire community, including women, businesses, schools, health workers and farmers. This has created a ’development dynamic’ that is now driving the demand in rural communities for more ICTs to facilitate services such as telemedicine, distance education, e-commerce and e-finance.

Technology

The large distances between islands and villages prescribe the use of the HF band for the email stations. HF is long range (thousands of kilometres) and does not rely on the use of repeater stations, which are vulnerable to vandalism arising from disputes associated with customary ownership of land. Each HF station can also act as a hub, using much cheaper very high frequency (VHF) technology to connect nearby villages. Technical performance is acceptable, with secure data transmission at 2 Kbps and no per-minute charges. The technology is proving very reliable and simple to use – operators are usually able to manage by themselves after only one week’s training.

Applications

Using PFnet for popular applications has proven a key success factor. So far, the project has supported rural networking for health clinics, an indigenous business development service, and the reinforcement of traditional agriculture. In 2002, PFnet even conducted trials with the University of the South Pacific to offer formal education over its email system.

By enabling the exchange of daily news between grassroots communities, PFnet is helping to break down the barriers caused by mistrust and misinformation. The project supports the efforts of rural communities to press for constitutional reform, and allows them to lobby for their interests either directly or through the media. All in all, the impact of PFnet on the Solomon Islands has been truly staggering.

PFnet was established by the UNDP (Fiji Multi-Country Office) and has received substantial support from local missions of Japan, the Republic of China and the UK, and through EU and AusAid projects. It is an initiative of the Rural Development Volunteers Association (RDVA), and is supported by the Ministry of Provincial Government and Rural Development.

David Leeming is People First Network’s technical adviser. PFnet Manager Randall Biliki is his local counterpart.

22 October 2002

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