Winter 2004-2005

How Wi-Fi Came to El Chaco in the Ecuadorian Rainforest
by Klaus Stoll

What happens in the following story is nothing out of the ordinary; it is just how Wi-Fi came to the community of El Chaco in Ecuador.

El Chaco
El Chaco

El Chaco is a small town about two hours by car east of Quito on the edge of the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest. Its 6,ooo inhabitants earn a living mostly from agriculture or small businesses when they have not left to seek their fortune in Quito or in other countries. El Chaco is neither rich nor poor nobody is starving and nobody has riches. The people of El Chaco have learned to make do with the basics. The same is true for the town's infrastructure: El Chaco has schools but they are in a bad state; El Chaco has a health station but no hospital and a doctor is often hard to find; El Chaco has access to the phone but the lines are rare and calls expensive; El Chaco has roads, some good, mostly bad, sometimes impassable.

The only special features that El Chaco has to offer, besides the outstanding natural beauty that so often can be found in Ecuador, is that an oil pipeline is running straight through it and that the river nearby is a paradise for all kinds of water sports like rafting and kayaking, ranking as one of the best in the world.

Fundacion Chasquinet is a small NGO based in Quito. The work Chasquinet does can be simply described as supporting the strategic use of the available information and communication technologies (ICT) in the social sector, working on a national and international basis with telecenters, schools, hospitals and NGO's. Chasquinet has established over the years an "open door" policy, meaning that Chasquinet will not go into the communities and establish its own projects but waits until the communities come to Chasquinet and ask for support. In this way it is ensured that the work Chasquinet is doing is based on the real needs of the communities and not the needs perceived by Chasquinet for a community. Chasquinet enters a partnership with the communities and the goal of these partnerships is community development.

In 2003 the Canadian International Development Research Center (IDRC) and the Institute for Connectivity in the Americas (ICA) contacted Chasquinet asking if Chasquinet would be able and willing to pilot Wi-Fi equipment in Ecuador. The equipment was from the Canadian company EION and consisted of three Wi-Fi sets with surround coverage of 5 km with one set having an additional 25 km point to point connection.

At the same time the community of El Chaco contacted Chasquinet asking them not only to help with their connectivity problem but also to help to make this work for the social and economic development of the whole community.

El Chaco had already experience with the Internet connection, consisting of a single computer at a restaurant. The connection was expensive and slow but it had convinced many in El Chaco of the potential of the new ICT's and the first question the community was looking for answers to was: How can we connect El Chaco to the Internet in a cost efficient way?

What better place then to test the Wi-Fi equipment than El Chaco? However, installing the equipment is just a small part of a successful project, and the most important question that needed answering was: Connectivity for what?

A series of community meetings was called and the questions the people of El Chaco wanted to answer soon became clear: How can the Internet help us in our schools, in our local government, with the small and medium enterprises, with the ecology, the health services and tourism? How can we make it sustainable not only in a financial but also in a technical, social, cultural and political sense?

To find the answers to these questions and to develop a strategic plan for the implementation of the new information and communication technologies, Chasquinet undertook a number of training and planning workshops. The training did not just concentrate on the technical aspects of using computers. More important was the training on the strategic use of these technologies: how to use the Internet in schools, how could the local government take advantage, how to document and protect the environmental treasures, how could the local enterprises be supported, how could the local health station use it, and how could the Internet be used to organize and promote local tourism?

Healing Touch in El Chaco
Healing Touch in El Chaco
One lesson Chasquinet has learned in the years of its existence is that social transformation can only come through personal transformation so in addition to the more Internet-concentrated workshops a "Healing Touch" workshop was organized for the community. Healing Touch is a medical technique that combines traditional indigenous healing traditions from North and South America, and it proved to be a vital step in the sustainable community development of El Chaco as it responded to deeply-rooted medical and cultural needs of the community.

After six month of training and consultations the community came up with their plan to implement the Internet in El Chaco. The main points of this plan were:

  • Creation of a Community Telecenter at a community center managed by a local group.
  • In a first phase, only the Telecenter, the local Government and the Health Center would be connected via Wi-Fi to the Internet.
  • The Telecenter would offer not just connectivity services to the community but concentrate on offering training particular to teachers and pupils, local government officials and local businesses.
  • Further points (schools, hotels, businesses, police station and so on) would be connected to the Wi-Fi network only after the respective users had received training at the Telecenter.
Telecenter in El Chaco
Telecenter in El Chaco
The plan was immediately put into action. The Telecenter was created and the workshops started and soon the Telecenter was a focal point of the community. But there was still one problem; it was a telecenter without Tele, without any Internet connection. Even if the Wi-Fi would be installed now it needed to be connected to the Internet. Dial-up and any cable based solution were out of the question due to their high costs. A technical investigation was undertaken with the result that a combination between VSAT and Wi-Fi would be the best and most cost effective solution, but the initial costs and the running costs were still high. A solution was found when the local government and the semi-governmental development agency for the Ecuadorian Amazon region, ECORAI, decided to share the cost.

Installing Wi-Fi in El Chaco
Installing Wi-Fi in El Chaco

The installation of the EION Wi-Fi equipment turned out to be easier then first thought. Everybody involved was nervous to see if this new technology would do what it promised, but after just a day and a half of installation the Wi-Fi worked just fine. Throughout the installation local technicians from the telecenter took part in order to learn how the system worked, to enable them to maintain it in the future and to act as "experts" for further installations. El Chaco was now on the Net and even with only three initial connection points the impact could be felt immediately.

For the first time teachers and pupils had access to quality teaching materials, for the first time families could communicate at a low cost with their loved ones working abroad, for the first time the mayor and his staff could access relevant governmental resources, for the first time the nurse could get advice from doctors in Quito, for the first time traders could offer their goods outside the local market, just a few examples from many. As one local woman expressed it: "I feel like El Chaco is for the first time on the map."

On-line in El Chaco
On-line in El Chaco

This is a perfect example how a relatively simple and cheap project like the Wi-Fi in El Chaco can have a big impact.

The main lessons learned from the project are: Wi-Fi, particularly in combination with VSAT technology, can be a cost-effective way to connect rural communities, but this connectivity will only have an impact if the system is implemented by the respective community and used by them according to their needs. Training, strategic use and community involvement are more important than the technology itself.


Klaus Stoll is President of the Fundacion Chasquinet in Quito, Ecuador.

Comments

Hello, & greetings from Canada!

I found your article about the establishment of a wi-fi network in El Chaco to be most interesting. (I have travelled around Ecuador a little bit so I am somewhat familiar with the area). Can you tell me: is the telecentre in El Chaco still active? Do you know if anyone in El Chaco is using the internet to advance their education (i.e. online learning)?

Many thanks!
Gina Bennett

Posted by: Gina Bennett at March 5, 2005 11:42 PM

Abrazos
Dear Gina

Greetings from Quito and Thanks for your comments. Yes, the Telecenter is still very much alive and far as I know there are some educational projects going on. You can contact David at dl_zapata@hotmail.com


Klaus

Posted by: Klaus at March 7, 2005 04:04 PM
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