Tweeting in the hills
In this, the golden age of Twitter and Facebook, the internet is taken for granted. Urban India is constantly logged in - be it on their phones, tabs or those tragically outdated things called desktops. But for AirJaldi, all this was a rarity in the areas they first ventured into.
A social enterprise that provides affordable, wireless connectivity in remote areas, AirJaldi was founded by Yahel Ben-David, an Israeli, who came to Dharamsala to work with
the Tibetans in exile. He funded the enterprise from his own pocket in the initial years.
From 2005, Michael Ginguld, fondly called "Mikey", 48, an Israeli engineer with a masters from Harvard University, has been the man in-charge as Ben-David is now pursuing his Ph.D in Computer Science at the University of California, Berkeley. Mikey's put his heart where his mission is, setting up home in Dharamsala with his Tibetan wife and four-and-half-year-old son.
In the past seven years, AirJaldi has come a long way with a client base that has grown from 30 to 400 spreading across Jharkhand, Kumaon, Kangra and Garhwal.
Making this happen is easier said than done in the picturesque yet tough terrains of these areas. Some remote locations require many hours of pre-planning and field scouting for locations to set up transmitting towers called 'relays'. Each deployment has its challenges - be it the tough trek to the Gaddi tribal Kareri village in the foothills of the Himalyas or the extreme weather conditions on some peaks.
Their efforts have helped schools, monasteries and hospitals of these areas who receive their free services, harness the power of the internet. Tsering Paldom, 54, a tuberculosis ward coordinator at the De Lek Hospital in McLeodganj used to wait days for medical reports by post, but now because of the hospital's free AirJaldi connection, the analysis is in within 24 hours by email. "We are anyway disconnected from the outer world," said Paldom. "We are still in the process of getting many basic facilities. AirJaldi has helped many of us, who hadn't thought it possible earlier, get connected. Their service is better than the paid service."
Three years ago, the network went commercial when they realised that their strictly not-for-profit organisation needed more funds to achieve its goals. As Mikey puts it: "It was a tough but unavoidable decision. Now, I can take on commercial clients like hotels and use the profits accrued to give free or subsidised connections to schools." Their route has altered a bit, but the destination remains the same: connecting those who need it at an affordable price with reliable service.
Their gameplan is fairly simple - optimising available resources. Their six-foot tall relays are mostly solar power based as these areas don't have reliable power grids. They put up two or three low-cost relays instead of one expensive tower and connect more
people. With some links as long as 50 km, multiple users connect via their network. "It's all about economising. The cellular giants have a lot more to waste. By being careful of what we have, we bring the cost down," said Tenzin Gompo, head of networks, AirJaldi.
The calls come from far and wide. From village entrepreneurs in Jhansi, micro banking outfits in Garhwal or schools in McLeodganj, AirJaldi is in demand.
What fuels this commitment? Dhondup Namgyal, a local who is now head of deployments at AirJaldi has seen the internet demography change around him. He cites the positive changes as motivation: "A client of ours, Shideling Café, is a popular joint for many to connect with their families back in Tibet. In a place where an hour over the internet is cheaper than a phone call, it's stuff like this that matters."
The effects are there for everyone to see. The community centre has computer literacy classes now. Visiting foreigners are breaking the language barriers, tiny guest houses have online booking portals, tourists finally have their free wiFi. Hell, even the monks at the Krito Jepa monastery are Facebook addicts. Everyone is on the e-map.