Short wave radio in the Solomon Islands

The Solomon Islands, one of four independent Melanesian states, is an archipelago of six main islands and 986 smaller islands spread over 1600 km by 900 km of the South Pacific Ocean. The Solomons’ rapidly growing population, primarily settled in small towns, villages and communities, was estimated in 2005 to be 538 000; its largest settlement has a population of 55 000, the second-largest, 6 000.  Civil unrest and ethnic tensions reached a peak in 2000, resulting in violence, deaths and an economic collapse; recovery became stronger in 2003 with the aid of the international community.

Citizens living in remote areas in the Solomons rely on satellite phones and short wave radios for communication. Using satellite phones is too expensive for most Solomon Islanders, and using short wave radios for voice calls is equally expensive, often requires queuing and repeated attempts for successful communication, however, using short wave radios for email has proven effective (albeit at low data rates, as the data can be transmitted large distances). In 2001, the People First Network (PFNet) NGO began a rural email network that was affordable, sustainable, usable and robust.

By 2007, there were 28 rural email stations throughout the islands, located in clinics, schools, and other public buildings. Each email station has a short wave radio, a computer, a printer and solar panels; the equipment and installation for each station costs approximately 8000 USD. Stations are connected to the hub station in the capital, which transfers incoming and outgoing email several times a day. The hub station is able to use dial up access to the wider Internet, but in fact it has a broadband connection so it may also provide an Internet café with web access. The Internet café has more than 25 computers, serves as a training facility for a wide variety of users and provides revenues to sustain the operations.

The rural email stations and the hub station have revenues greater than their operating costs with surplus income used for equipment replacement. Intervening infrastructures, such as relay stations, which are costly and difficult to maintain, are unnecessary; at its most basic, the rural email network could operate with only one part time technician and an operating budget of a few dollars per day, if the hub station used dial up access instead of a broadband connection.

Rural email stations are looked after by operators who also help the customers. Customers dictate or write notes that the operators then type and send as email; only customers having their own email accounts and literacy in English are allowed to type email. The charge for sending an email is 2.00 SBD (0.26 USD); receiving an email is free, though there may be a charge of 0.50 SBD (0.07 USD) for printing the message. Operators develop their own computing skills and, as demand grows, they begin to train others. If demand and skills grow in this way, they may reach levels at which higher data rates and applications other than email are justified. This has occurred at two rural email stations which now have Very Small Aperture Terminals (VSATs) in distance learning centres.

The process for setting up a remote email station begins with an enquiry from the community. The PFNet advises a village elder, or other community representative, how to establish a representative committee, how to hold initial public meetings and how to write a proposal for funding. If the proposal is accepted, the rural email station is given a management committee with membership drawn from many sections of society (such as education and health workers, leading women, church elders, traditional chiefs, and business people). The committee helps the community to interpret information, identify ICT needs, and participate in consultations. The committee selects the site and operator of the remote email station, and then the committee, the operator and the NGO, all agree on how the rural email station is to be operated. Local champions needing email are identified and are expected to initiate other members of the community into using email; for doing so they get free email accounts. The community initiates all of this, as the NGO believes that participation is greatest when the community identifies its own needs and establishes the demand to have a rural email station.

A survey of users, examining the impact of the email network on poor rural people of the Solomons, concluded that:

  • The main activities when using the rural email network were communication with families and friends (46 per cent), education (20 per cent), and business (12 per cent).
  • Rural business people used the email network to develop urban customer contacts, check prices, supply and order stock, receive agricultural information, check shipping schedules, liaise with banks for financial transactions, and liaise with government offices.
  • Farmers used the rural email network to get information and advice from relevant agricultural authorities, NGOs and the wider Internet.
  • Doctors, nurses, and health workers used the rural email network for health related issues, to describe test results, diagnoses, treatments, and orders for medicines.
  • The rural email network fulfilled the important role of reporting news both from the islands and distributing news to the islands; this contributed to peace and reconciliation by reducing the number of false rumours.

The rural email network was established under the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) rural development programme and expanded with funding from New Zealand, the United Kingdom, China, Japan, Australia and the European Union.

Source: UN in Action (UN, July 2003), http://www.peoplefirst.net.sb/Downloads/PFnet_UN_in_action.MPG, People First Network (PFNet, 2006), http://www.peoplefirst.net.sb/downloads/pfnet_brochure.pdf, The Impact of ICT on Rural Development in Solomon Islands: the PFNet Case (Anand Chand and others, USP, March 2005), http://www.usp.ac.fj/jica/ict_research/documents/pdf_files/pfnet_report.pdf, and discussions with David Leeming.
 

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