In Chapter 5 of Tim Unwin’s “ICT4D,” there is a case study titled, “ICT and education strategies in the Pacific” by Michael Trucano (156-157). This brief article discusses the potential that ICT’s have for meaningful change in the development of the small Island nations of the Pacific. Localized and community-based ICT projects are emerging on many of these island states, the most well-known of which, according to Trucano, is the People First Network (PFnet) in the Solomon Islands. The book provided just a few sentences about this organization, so I decided to do some further investigating to better understand PFnet’s approach to connecting remote islands through ICT’s.
PFnet was developed by the Rural Development Volunteers Association, which is a non-profit group created by the Solomon Islands’ Ministry of Provincial Government and Rural Development. In order to connect rural communities, encourage sustainable rural development, and enable information sharing among individuals, development programs, NGO’s, government agencies, and businesses, PFnet has created an email system that spans thousands of square kilometers – secluded communities across the islands have gained email access through simple computers, short-wave radio, and solar power.
How does it work?
- PFnet has an internet café in the capital city, Honiara, from which people can get on the internet to use email or search the web. It also functions as a training facility. Open since February 2001, the café is already financially self-sufficient.
- Email stations, using simple and proven technology, are also located in isolated spots across the Solomon islands, often in community clinics or schools. Email operators help locals to use email at a very low cost.
- PFnet also publishes important information resources and news on it’s own website and continues to experiment with new technology to further improve its services. PFnet’s network has been used to increase rural connectivity in the health, education, finance, and agriculture sectors.
Why use email to connect remote communities?
- ICT’s can have the greatest impact in remote locations since it is often the only connection to the outside world. The only other means of communication available to many communities are short-wave radios and satellite telephones, which are often ineffective and costly.
- The basic email services provided by PFnet make communication easier, cheaper, and sustainable.
- As the website states, “As a basic utility to all other activities, this affordable telecommunication and information network will assist the country, particularly low-income groups, in taking in charge their own development through improved logistics, information and knowledge. A particular attention is given to gender equity and democratic governance. This is in concrete terms what bridging of the digital divide means to the Solomon Islands.”
I think that PFnet is great because it’s a project that has been developed to meet the specific needs of the remote communities where it works – geographic isolation is a major impediment in the Solomon Islands’ development and this initiative strives to increase connectivity there, an important problem in communities secluded from one another and the rest of the world. PFnet has already formed partnerships with other organizations to provide critical information services to the people of the Solomon Islands and has plans to expand their network even further.