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Sister island recasts the net

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, it’s also a quest the 23-year-old can’t give up.

“If I didn’t 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 didn’t 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. “It’s all magic to most of them, but now more are stepping up for the service.”

So far, a handful of hotels, BOSIA’s 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 Libre’s 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 world’s poor – could revolutionize trade and political involvement.

“We wanted to empower people, and that’s 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 don’t own a printing press. It changes the status quo, especially in power relationships.”

But the system’s 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 Libre’s new wireless ethernet system, initiated in 2000, has been running strong enough that Abrahamsen hopes to fulfill the project’s initial goal of linking Ometepe’s schools.

“We’ll 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 cooperative’s 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 didn’t 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 wasn’t 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 it’s too important to abandon, he said.

“It’s 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 people’s imaginations and be a tool to understand where they are, where they’re going and put the island in touch with other communities in the region that are going through similar changes.”

Mitchell believes Abrahamsen’s renewed commitment is largely what keeps Red Libre afloat.

“He means a whole lot for the project because there’s 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 that’s an important thing Peter does. He’s got really good technical skills and good Spanish, and we couldn’t do without it. He also thinks about the social impacts of what he’s 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 system’s equipment will need to be replaced after a windstorm and vandalizations, and the project’s budget has only a few hundred dollars left, Abrahamsen said.

Despite these and other challenges, Abrahamsen’s time off has rejuvenated his enthusiasm for project. He’s even in talks about what he’d like to do with Red Libre two years from now.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I guess I’ve cooled off, I’m happy, I’m more optimistic, I have more energy and a lot more hope.”

To learn more about the Red Libre Internet Service Provider project, visit Peter Abrahamsen’s site: http://redlibre.blogspot.com. The project’s official site, www.redlibre.ometepe.net, will be completed soon.

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