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Community Networks 18 November 2020

Onno Purbo: 2020 Postel Award Winner Uses Human Touch to Bridge the Digital Divide

Darlena Cunha
By Darlena CunhaGuest Author

Onno Purbo is a people person. It’s not typically something you hear about an engineer. But it is through his approach to education in the Internet sphere that Indonesian villages have access at all.

“The other engineers, they are very much engineer,” Purbo said. “A problem is solved by coding, is solved by an antenna, is solved by a product of some kind. My approach is a more human approach. Most engineers introduce their products, I give people the knowledge.”

Purbo, as this year’s Jonathan B. Postel Award winner, uses his experience, knowledge, and expertise not only to build networks and improve access for his fellow Indonesians, but to teach them how to do it themselves. He does this through hours of work on social media channels, speaking one-on-one with hundreds of thousands of followers whenever they have questions or concerns.

“I use social media as a free, huge class[room]. Effective and efficient empowerment processes were not possible with the old mechanism where we would rent rooms or buildings with professional event organizers,” Purbo said. “These days, for example, thousands of viewers may easily view any of my videos on YouTube.”

With nearly 700,000 followers on social media, Purbo reaches an incredibly large audience, daily. He uploads several how-to videos a day, accessible to all.

“Per day, I post an average of three 10-minute videos, answer about 20 to 30 questions on YouTube, and five to 10 questions on Twitter,” he said. “It doesn’t take much time. It’s very interactive. They ask questions, and I answer.”

For those needing more structure, Purbo has an e-learning platform where people can sign up for classes and learn concepts from beginning to end. In fact, 39,000 participants ranging from junior high school kids to international school campuses take part in these online learning modules.

“I teach basic knowledge people need to use their network,” he said. “Cloud computing, the operating system. People are always asking me how we can teach young students to do programming, and this is one way to do it.”

But Purbo isn’t only a social media king. He’s also spent years promoting a fair and free Internet service for all of Indonesia. He says the three main barriers to access in his country are: language, access infrastructure, and general technology knowledge gaps.

“Most of us have difficulties reading and communicating in English,” he said. “Unfortunately, most knowledge on the Internet is in English.”

Indonesia is home to more than 83,000 villages. Purbo says that while the government thinks the entire country has Internet access, in reality, at least 9,000 villages go without. He works to provide WiFi signals to even the most remote villages.

“We need to build the infrastructure,” he said. “With a point-to-point connection from one island to another, I can connect to another island, which is the backbone of the network for long distance connection. Otherwise, we can’t have Internet on that island.”

Purbo uses map programs to monitor the speed of connections and push signals from place to place using basic machinery installed in certain houses in the villages. These can go incredibly far, even more than 300 km.

“I teach people how to build the machinations for the point-to-point relays to get to the islands,” he said. “We put the equipment in a house, typically, because if you set up outside in a jungle or whatnot, the equipment could get stolen.”

What that equipment lacks in top-of-the-line technological advancement, it makes up for in creativity and ingenuity. Purbo has put years of work into making WiFi antennae out of kitchen woks and tin cans, for instance. While regular WiFi has a maximum distance of around 50 meters, if you use a tin can, it amplifies that signal to a kilometer. The signal, Purbo says, is a radio signal, and in their latest version of this invention, they added a wok which causes the antenna to act like a satellite dish, expanding the range to four kilometers. They call it a Wokbolic.

“I thank my friends in the communities for the ideas on a tin can and Wokbolic. These all emerged as the result of months of intensive discussions to find cheap wireless Internet technology,” Purbo said.

Purbo is not new to this terrain. Starting in the early 90s, he led the first Internet connection at the Institute of Technology in Bandung, where he worked. He used that to build the first educational network in Indonesia.

He quickly moved to Internet cafes as a way for people to cheaply access the Internet. Internet cafes were able to reduce Internet costs to approximately USD 30 cents an hour. To sustain demand/user growth, Internet cafe operators also taught people how to use the Internet.

“When we teach people [digital literacy skills], we create the market. In the early 2000s, people were building these cafes because it was new and not many had access. In six months, they got their money back, but in the process they had to teach the users how to use the Internet, so they created their own market,” Purbo said.

It’s an evolving supply and demand system that Purbo says benefits the population, which has always been his main goal. He started down this path in 2000, when the university he was working for decided to copyright their Internet research.

“I said if we want to educate people, we have to spread our knowledge, not copyright it and economically exploit it,” he said. “And three days after that, I resigned to educate the Indonesia people.”

Purbo decided to go copyleft, which means the public can freely and easily access knowledge. It enables Indonesians to build a community-based, low-cost Internet.

“The number of people I am educating is what I am proud of, hundreds of thousands of people. That’s how we build the network,” Purbo said. “We are fine tuning the learning to fit into people’s needs and budgets. Through discussion and community, we built this thing together.”

Purbo says he was influenced to do this type of work by his father, an environmentalist who helped many villagers in his time. Through that example, Purbo was able to take his engineering expertise and explain and disseminate information to everyday Indonesians.

Currently he teaches at IIB Darmajaya, Lampung, Indonesia. He says his efforts are aided by international organizations like the Internet Society. This makes his Postel Award win all the more sweet, he says.

“It’s not about me,” he said. “It’s acknowledgment for our effort to build the community network. For many years, people always told us, we are doing the wrong things. We didn’t realize that this was the right way to do it. That acknowledgement told us we are going in the right direction.”

Purbo calls the Postel Award the world’s highest award ever received by Indonesia in the field of the Internet. He says the award is never just about one person, but the entire community working together to change the world.

“The Postel Service Award sheds light on how all of us should go for all and it inspires extraordinary enthusiasm for moving towards a knowledge-based society,” Purbo said. “It’s not technology, it’s a mix of tech and people that create the network.”

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Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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