University of Waterloo researchers released a beta version of an open source technology designed to give developing regions around the world Web access for communication and for information on agricultural best practices and health care.
Currently, the biggest challenges to Internet communications in developing countries is keeping it cheap and robust, but the technology, VLink, is designed to be a cost-effective approach to making the plethora of information on the Web available, said Srinivasan Keshav, a professor with the University of Waterloo’s school of computer science.
“Without access to this information, farmers, doctors, students are left behind,” said Keshav.
Phone lines are typically not reliable and PCs are prone to breaking down due to heat and pests, said Keshav, but VLink, in beta since last June, works where communication links are unreliable or even non-existent.
"All we want in the end is for people in developing regions to benefit from it,” said Srinivasan Keshav.If phones lines go down, as they are prone to do in developing regions, VLink will retry the data transmission so a connection can be made once the line is back up, explained Keshav. And, in regions where no communication link exists, e-mail exchanges can be performed via USB memory sticks that store encrypted packets, physically transported by people between PCs.
Acknowledging the time delay in communicating via travelling USB device, Keshav noted the approach costs nothing. Besides, he added, the use of a PC in developing regions is typically for less time-sensitive tasks like completing government forms and “in these cases, it doesn’t matter if it takes a few hours instead of a few seconds.”
Data security in VLink is ensured using PKI encryption, an important factor considering that the goal is eventually to use the technology for handling sensitive data like medical records. Moreover, those PCs will have communal usage, said Keshav. “A desktop PC in a village is likely to be shared by not just one person, but by 10, 20 people. They may be receiving e-mails they don’t want other people to see.”