Downloadable book aims to ease wireless networking

A new book aims to teach people in remote areas how to build their own wireless networks.

Several community wireless and networking specialists have just completed a free, downloadable book designed to instruct people in remote corners of the world on how to build their own Internet connections using wireless gear. While the book itself is noteworthy in that it offers a resource that could have a strong impact on the livelihood of people in remote areas, equally interesting is the way in which it is being distributed.

The book, called "Wireless Networking in the Developing World," was written by eight volunteers, including Rob Flickenger, a community wireless activist, author and developer as well as Sebastian Buttrich and Tomas Krag, co-founders of the nonprofit organization wire.less.dk. Krag, who instructs people around the globe on how to use wireless technology to set up networks, came up with the idea to write a training manual that could be used by people who might not be able to be taught in person by an expert.

Krag admits that this isn't the first book on the subject. In fact, one of the authors, Flickenger, has written a book for the publisher O'Reilly Media on building such wireless networks. "But there are two issues," said Krag. "One is, it's not free. But more importantly, it's hard to get even if you can pay for the book." Someone in a remote area of Mongolia, for example, who could benefit from this book and had the money to pay for it might live in an area that does not have any mail service. Parcel delivery companies will often ship to such locations, but often for exorbitant fees.

"Wireless Networking in the Developing World" is free for anyone to download and print from its Web site, http://wndw.net/. That means that interested people in remote areas can travel to a nearby city where the book could be downloaded and printed at an Internet cafe.

In addition, in an unusual twist among books that are free to download, the authors are allowing others to sell the book for a profit. That means that an enterprising person could print out copies of the book and sell them, perhaps in towns without Internet access.

Krag is hoping to develop ways to encourage small businesses to sell copies of the book. For example, he'd like to develop a page of the Web site where small businesses could register as an organization selling printed copies of the books.

The response to the book since it was first introduced on Friday has been surprising. Already, 3,500 copies have been downloaded. One person in Cambodia has started printing out copies and will distribute them for free. A friend of Krag's in India has offered to translate the book into Hindi.

Krag and his co-authors hope to have the book translated into Spanish, Arabic, Hindi, French and Russian. The translations could be a challenge to manage going forward because Krag plans to regularly update the book. He said that he hopes the book's Web site will become an open forum where readers and other experts can add comments and chapters. Every six to nine months the authors hope to re-release a new version of the book, including the new information.

There are several reasons why wireless technology is an ideal tool for boosting communications in remote areas, Krag said. It's far cheaper than running cables. More significantly, however, wireless can be used to build networks incrementally, as the operator earns more profits. For example, Krag worked with an entrepreneur in Ghana who initially rented a modem bank to serve customers for a year and a half, until he had enough money to fly to New York where he bought a few wireless routers to serve customers directly. After he earned a bit more money, he flew back to New York to buy some more routers, slowly building out his network as he could afford to.

The networks are often used in ways that can have a significant impact on the people who live in the area. In Tanzania, a group Krag has helped train is using wireless to build centers in remote villages that will be linked to an existing center that teaches local people agricultural skills. That way the villagers don't have to travel so far for the education.

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