Engineering students help bring the Internet to rural Africa

Residents of rural Kenya now have e-mail accounts and Internet access thanks in part to the work of University of Michigan engineering students who enabled satellite-based service at three locations there. Their work was supported by Google.

Only five percent of Africans have access to the Web, compared with 74 percent of North Americans. Over the past year, undergraduates in two of Thomas Zurbuchen’s master’s level space systems design classes devised and built a satellite-based system that could inexpensively and easily bring the Web to underserved Africa. In November, three students brought their system to Kenya and installed it with help from local organizations there…

The ground stations they created use off-the-shelf technology and operate with solar power. The students realized that often, places without the Internet are places without reliable electricity…

When the semester ended, most students moved on. But a handful stayed on the project to build the prototypes and take them oversees.

Kelly Moran, Trisha Donajkowski and Joan Ervin, who recently graduated with master’s degrees in AOSS, brought the stations to Kenya. They spent 10 days there, hauling the equipment to various sites and working with residents and local organizations to install the Internet cafes.

It’s really that easy, you know. They used off-the-shelf components. Money was raised one way or another – it didn’t take a lot.

But, governments in developing nations don’t have any spare money. And it’s usually only geeks who think of providing useful stuff like wells and cookers, Web access and laptops and satellite dishes. Somehow, our nation is cluttered with individuals and organizations who think the 3rd World should remain – quaint.

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