Onno Purbo (@onnowpurbo) reuses radio frequencies and other wavelengths to help give the poorest and most poorly served access to the Internet. His favorite method – not really a secret, since it’s open source – is a wifi antenna made from a wok, the most common pan in South East Asia and Indonesia, where Purbo lives. He calls it “wajanbolic“, which translates to “wokbolic.” It’s an initiative mixing tech and social good. His wife also works in tech, training women in IT.
“I didn’t have power or money, so I used the masses to support what I was doing,” Purbo says. He was also helped by the fact that being invited to several international events like the World Summits on the Information Society, held first in Geneva, then Tunis, gave him a certain renown (also see this article on Information Technologies and International Development).
To get people to start embracing the idea, Purbo had to explain it and provide examples. He left his university position in order to dedicate himself to writing e-books (including one in English, the VoIP Cookbook) and giving workshops explaining the process throughout the country.
One of his most widely adopted innovations is wokbolic wifi. It’s an antenna that can access the internet from 3 or 4 kilometers away, he says.
The device is generally made with a wok (sometimes the lid of a pot) at the center of which a PVC pipe covered in aluminum foil is usually affixed. A USB drive attached to the middle provides the wifi. With a system like this, only one person needs Internet access in order to share it with the entire community. “It’s easy to build,” Purbo says. As were the four access mailing lists he runs.
For someone like Purbo, the work never stops. In the mobile era, he’s moving from wifi to 3G, this time focusing more intensely on the global open source community (see OpenBTS).
His formula: DIY + available frequencies + education. He even has a business model. Building on his reputation on his free books that have been downloaded throughout Indonesia, he charges between $200 and $300 per day for conferences and workshops, mainly in colleges. Not every day, but “enough to feed the family,” he says. And the students build their own antennas and networks as part of their student projects.
It ends up creating both the early steps of an infrastructure and the beginning of the sort of mass adoption that forces those in power to act.