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senorjosh.comDecember 2003: → Mon. 12/01
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11.23.03:    |    December 2003    |    12.02.03:
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wizzy digital courier
December 1, 2003
KwaZibonele Primary School struggles to pay its monthly electricity bill. There is no telephone line, no wireless network, and no satellite uplink. Internet access, it would seem, is impossible. Yet, each of KwaZibonele’s 1050 students has a private email account and the opportunity to surf his or her favorite websites.

Cape Town nonprofit Wizzy Digital Courier has devised a way to provide impoverished schools with basic Internet services. The concept behind Wizzy is simple: high connection fees prevent schools from getting online -- so eliminate the connection. At KwaZibonele, Internet is delivered using a keychain-sized USB card and a motorbike: Every morning, teacher Joe Imsotho gets off his bike and plugs a USB card full of requested email and websites into a central server in KwaZibonele’s computer room. The data is quickly transferred from the USB card onto a central server, then automatically disseminated to the thin-client workstations in the room. Minutes later, when the classroom fills with students, they will find their email and web pages waiting to be read.

The system, developed by Wizzy founders Andy Rabagliati and Larry Wood, has been dubbed “delayed dialup”. In delayed dialup, all of the school’s outgoing emails and web page requests are intercepted and temporarily stored on a server in the computer lab. At the end of the day, when connection fees are greatly reduced, a single phone call is made and the data is transferred en masse. Or, if the school does not have a phone to make the call - as is the case at KwaZibonele - the data is physically transferred to a location equipped with the necessary telecommunications equipment. By minimizing the number of minutes during which the school is connected to the ISP, delayed dialup greatly reduces the cost of Internet. Though the Internet experience is not a real-time one, it is the only opportunity many students have to write emails and surf the web. “I never want to leave school,” says student Ima Student, “once I leave, I don’t know when the next time will be that I can email Jenny [Ima’s friend in the US]”.

The solution provided by Wizzy Digital Courier is remarkably cost effective, and has already enabled five previously unwired South African schools to connect to the internet. Monthly connection fees, which would normally cost in the neighborhood of R1000 (US$150), are brought down to roughly R350 (US$50). Hardware expenses to schools are reduced by the installation of a thin-client network which, in comparison to its standard computer lab counterpart, is easier to maintain, harder to break, and significantly cheaper to scale up. And, as Andy notes, “forcing the school to convert to the thin-client model - which is no mean feat - ensures that the school’s administrators are committed to the project.”

Wizzy does not charge schools for their services. Thus, they have had to develop their technology on a shoestring budget. To cut costs, Wizzy based their offices out of the UUNET Bandwidth Barn, a low-cost shared office space in Cape Town. Recognizing early on that the delayed dialup technology would require a massive amount of programming, Wizzy took full advantage of the open-source software freely available on the Internet. Offline web browsing, for example, is accomplished using publicly-available WWWOFFLE software; delayed email is done with the popular WemailF. In effect, what Wizzy has done is to piece together many disparate software applications into an integrated package, designed specifically for use in African schools. In the final product, it takes 20 seconds to add/delete a user email account, and just three clicks to transfer outgoing mail from 30 computers onto a single USB device.

In the near future, Wizzy will release an open-source distribution version of their software, complete with instructions on how to properly configure the thin-client network. It hopes that the technology will be picked up and improved by others in the development community. In the meantime, Wizzy is experimenting with using wireless technology to make the information exchange between the computer room and the portable device. If all goes as planned, Joe’s motorcycle will soon be replaced by Henry’s milktruck. Every morning, as Henry unloads the crates of milk, a wireless transmitter mounted on the truck will detect a connection and unload Internet.

Posted by senorjosh at December 1, 2003 06:29 AM | TrackBack

Josh - just out of curiosity, can you give us a little breakdown of the kind of webpages requested by the students? Do the schools have any discretion over what sites the students can view? I'm not talking about anything dirty here, but, I dunno, like sites about soccer and other fun things kids like to look up. Do the schools allow recreational sites as well as educational ones, is I guess what I'm curious about.

Posted by: evan at December 2, 2003 09:01 AM

my friends at have an image of people browsing the web by checking print-outs posted on a neighborhood bulletin board. i like the links between your project and issues of accessibility in urban communities around here. peace, sele

Posted by: sele at December 12, 2003 06:32 AM

Evan - that's a good question. The downloaded material is currently at the discretion of the local lab administrator. Theoretically, s/he would respond to students' requests, but there's always the possibility that the sysadmin would brainwash the kids into a diabolical cult. Honestly, I'm not sure how it plays out in the end - at Esangweni I did see a few kids looking at an article on Black Eyed Peas...

One cool thing is the WWWOFFLE software, by default, will scooping material "n-deep", i.e. it will follow all links as far as n pages away from the original requested website. So, if CNN is scooped, there will be links to Sports Illustrated, etc. Of course, the material is limited by the overall bandwidth - only 128MB in the case where the data is physically transferred via USB card.

Posted by: josh at December 17, 2003 01:31 AM

sele - yeah, it's easy to fall into thinking that these problems aren't our problems. i was talking to someone studying aids in south africa, and she asked a good question: "why didn't i do any of this stuff when i was at home?"

Posted by: josh at December 17, 2003 01:36 AM
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