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The world's highest cyber cafe

February 20, 2003 14:01 IST

Sherpa Tsering Gyaltsen aims to connect Everest base camp to the rest of the world

Tsering Gyaltsen has lofty goals. As the grandson of the only surviving Sherpa to have accompanied Edmund Hillary on his first ascent of Everest, it should come as no surprise.

Gyaltsen is working on setting up the world's highest Internet café at Everest base camp to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Hillary's climb on May 29, 1953.

This entrepreneurial Sherpa is hoping that the project brings technological developments to his region. He first discovered the Internet in 2000 and decided to start a cyber café in the Sherpa capital Namche, a six-day hike from Everest base camp. This was not to be as Maoists blew up vital communication networks and towers, cutting off the town from the rest of the world.

Last year, Gyaltsen set up his own small telecom company and explored the option of using satellite communications (VSAT) to connect with the outside world. He has been working with SquareNet, an ISP specialising in VSAT installations. Calling from Namche to anywhere in Nepal being very expensive, Gyaltsen also experimented with providing phone facilities using a telephony application called IPStar.

It was over a drink with a friend working for the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee* that Gyaltsen hatched the idea of this cyber café.

On Gyaltsen's wish list is setting up a good site giving full information about Solu Khumbu (home to four of the world's six highest mountains) including trails, rules, porter availability and the weather. Gyaltsen plans to give free online listings of all hotels and lodges from Gorak Shep to Luka and enable online booking.

"If my friends and relatives were going on an expedition, I'd be worried. We should be able to give up-dated information on the site about the progress if all treks and expeditions on a daily basis," shares Gyaltsen.

According to him, most people of the region leave for higher studies and only 10 per cent return. To get people to come home, Gyaltsen started computer classes for people where he teaches a basic course and hardware repair. With Internet connectivity and affordable phone lines, the Sherpa feels that people don't have to sacrifice all links with the modern world on their return. He also aims to clear misinformation about Sherpa culture.

The challenges

The technology challenges are many and Gyaltsen has a deadline to complete the project. The next sixty days will see the creation of the world's highest Internet link at base camp (17,000 feet) and Kalapathar (18,500 feet).

The goal is to connect an estimated 25 expeditions and as many as 1000 people who will converge between mid-March and early June with the rest of the world by email.

Wireless radios will have to positioned on glaciers and equipment have to be insulated against cold temperatures. The plan is to install an Internet VSAT base unit on the Kalapathar step, together with a 802.11b access point that is 1,500 feet higher than base camp on the glacier. The glacier unit will link to either a directional or omni antenna and client radio at the base camp where a 5-computer cyber tent will be in place. This will enable all climbers to use email, browse and also possibly allow limited file transfer.

Technology support

Publisher of the monthly Cook Report, New Jersey based Gordon Cook met the Sherpa during his trip to Nepal in November 2002. Cook heard of Gyaltsen from Dileep Agarwal, CEO of WorldLink (Kathmandu based ISP) and was inspired by the Sherpa's efforts. On his return home, Cook has invested considerable time in trying assist Gyaltsen in building his vision.

Cook introduced Colorado based Dave Hughes, a wireless technology expert who has studied performance of wireless equipment in extreme climates like Alaska. Hughes then brought into the loop, Jim Forster, an engineer with Cisco Systems. Foster donated three Wi-fi radios on behalf of his company.

Hughes meanwhile has configured a couple of Cisco 350 radios in his US office and linked them to the Internet with static IP addresses and given the login and passwords to Gyaltsen and his team. He uses Web conferencing to teach the novices about installation, operation of no licence radios and IP networks.

Subodh Manandhar of SquareNet will set up a rigorous testing plan to ensure the installation is a success. While SquareNet's authority will be in base camp(s), WorldLink's will be in wireless communication on the mountain. Agarwal has loaned an engineer to keep Gyaltsen's Namche Chatauri operating while he is at base camp.

The access costs are yet to be decided. Gyaltsen and Square Network are investing US $15,000 each and will approach expeditions to see access for the season at a rate that will recover their costs. Access is also likely to be sold on a per user basis.

On the technology front, the success of the project stands to become a potential model for setting up communication networks in areas that suffer from extreme climates and without much government support. If the project passes the critical phase in the next 60 days, Khumbu may become the testing place for the development of the world's most advanced radios.

The cultural ramifications to the project are also many. For example, during off-season, the satellite dishes can be moved back to Namche. The radios will provide Internet connection to the nearby school, which can then be used for distance learning.

This possibility is what excites Gyaltsen immensely. There are approximately 90,000 Sherpas in the world today and half this number live outside Nepal. "With better telecommunications it will become easier and much more attractive for them to come home," says Gyaltsen.

( *All climbing is controlled by the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee, which issues licences, permits, promotestourism and is the umbrella organisation for all base camp operations)

Pic: Tsering Gyaltsen (right) with his grandfather

Anita Bora