Sister island recasts the net
June 9, 2008 · Updated 6:05 PM
Ometepe Internet project gets boost from young volunteer
Peter Abrahamsen admits bringing Internet service to the remote Nicaraguan island of Ometepe often seems totally absurd.
But somehow, its also a quest the 23-year-old cant give up.
If I didnt keep trying, it would all be for naught, he said.
Abrahamsen, a Seattle native, leaves next month for another stint overseeing nearly every facet of Red Libre, a nonprofit Internet service provider project spearheaded by the Bainbridge-Ometepe Sister Islands Association.
Initiated 12 years ago, Red Libre or Free Net in English has struggled to not only connect the island, but also to sell residents on its uses.
Folks didnt really have much time for the project and nobody really knew much of what it could do, said Abrahamsen, who returned from Nicaragua in late August. Its all magic to most of them, but now more are stepping up for the service.
So far, a handful of hotels, BOSIAs Ometepe office, a coffee cooperative, two private residences and the main office for the City of Altagracia are linked to the network.
BOSIA member and Red Libres founder David Mitchell of Bainbridge Island obtained a $15,000 grant in the mid-90s from the MCI telecommunications company to help breathe life into the project.
Mitchell believes widely dispersed access to the Internet - especially among the worlds poor could revolutionize trade and political involvement.
We wanted to empower people, and thats not a value-neutral position, said Mitchell. The Internet is a disruptive technology (because) it may empower students or empower peasants. It distributes information widely and allows people to communicate who dont own a printing press. It changes the status quo, especially in power relationships.
But the systems initial try, using a low-orbit satellite link, came with 18-hour message transfer delays.
Another attempt a few years later with the help of the Nicaraguan government ended quickly after a series of equipment failures.
Red Libres new wireless ethernet system, initiated in 2000, has been running strong enough that Abrahamsen hopes to fulfill the projects initial goal of linking Ometepes schools.
Well offer it to schools for free, but we still need a lot more computers and and basic infrastructure such as satellite towers, batteries and power equipment before we can really expand, he said.
Abrahamsen spent nine months last year overseeing every aspect of the project and none of it was easy.
As a freshly minted University of Washington philosophy grad, Abrahamsen was thrust into a foreign country and given the task of spearheading a high-tech business endeavor in a very low-tech region.
His burgeoning Spanish-language skills were given a sink-or-swim test, which forced him into fluency at a rapid pace.
Abrahamsen also lived in a 10-by-10-foot cubicle on the top floor of Finca Magdalena, a coffee cooperatives main production building that is rapidly converting into a low-budget hostel. His meals were cooked for him, but strayed little from rice and beans. He was unpaid, overworked and sometimes bored.
And there were other challenges.
Oh, let me count the ways, he said. Transportation. That was a big one. If I needed to talk to somebody, it could take most of the day, especially if they didnt have a phone or if the phones were down. It took a really long time just to get really small things done. It was really wearing over time.
As the project progressed much slower than he world have liked, Abrahamsen also felt isolated on the rural island.
More than anything, there was just this sense of working totally alone on the project, he said. There really wasnt anyone else I could connect with who was also in a strange place doing something that was totally absurd.
By the end of his stint, Abrahamsen, whose computer expertise is largely self-taught, had all but sworn off the project. But its too important to abandon, he said.
Its an interesting challenge, he said. Ometepe is very much in transition like many places that are becoming part of a global family.
The Internet could spark peoples imaginations and be a tool to understand where they are, where theyre going and put the island in touch with other communities in the region that are going through similar changes.
Mitchell believes Abrahamsens renewed commitment is largely what keeps Red Libre afloat.
He means a whole lot for the project because theres still a whole lot to do, Mitchell said. We need to improve the quality and connections but more importantly, we need to get more Nicaraguans involved in the maintenance. They need to be in touch and thats an important thing Peter does. Hes got really good technical skills and good Spanish, and we couldnt do without it. He also thinks about the social impacts of what hes doing and cares about the people on Ometepe.
BOSIA, thanks to an anonymous donation, is kicking in a small stipend for Abrahamsen this time around.
The Bainbridge nonprofit is also planning to send some help in the form of another computer-savvy volunteer from New Mexico. Add a cell phone, maybe an old truck and Abrahamsen will have the basic tools to make it all a lot more pleasant.
Still, some of the systems equipment will need to be replaced after a windstorm and vandalizations, and the projects budget has only a few hundred dollars left, Abrahamsen said.
Despite these and other challenges, Abrahamsens time off has rejuvenated his enthusiasm for project. Hes even in talks about what hed like to do with Red Libre two years from now.
I dont know, he said. I guess Ive cooled off, Im happy, Im more optimistic, I have more energy and a lot more hope.
To learn more about the Red Libre Internet Service Provider project, visit Peter Abrahamsens site: http://redlibre.blogspot.com. The projects official site, www.redlibre.ometepe.net, will be completed soon.