Nonprofit bolsters IT program for low-tech nations

Inveneo expands program to develop, train and support networking and IT specialists in African countries

A nonprofit group bringing sustainable IT and networking solutions to small communities in the developing world is expanding a program to develop, train and support local networking and IT specialists.

The program is the brainchild of San Francisco-based Inveneo. The idea is to recruit and then partner with in-country IT professionals, helping them to add skills and hire, train and certify new IT staff. The program focuses on Inveneo's solar-powered wireless computing and telephony system, which has been deployed so far in 20 sites in six African countries.

The pilot training program was launched last year in Uganda, with two local partners, Linux Solutions and Keyskills. So far, the pilot has five projects completed or underway. Based on that experience, Inveneo won expansion funding from the 50x15 Initiative, a project launched by chipmaker AMD in 2004. The initiative's goal is to enable 50 percent of the world's population to have affordable Internet access by 2015. AMD declined to say how much money it was investing in the Inveneo project.

With the additional funding, the Inveneo Certified Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Partners program is being expanded in East Africa over the next six months, focusing on Rwanda, Kenya and Tanzania.

Inveneo's system , unveiled just 12 months ago, uses off-the-shelf computer and wireless LAN products but redesigns and repackages them for the uniquely demanding requirements of poor, rural areas with minimal telecommunications infrastructure. The units are built to somewhat more rugged specifications than conventional gear and use considerably less power. Solar panels provide a power option where electricity is not available. Open source systems and applications software help hold down costs.

The Inveneo Communications Station is based on the low-power Wyse S50 Linux thin client, with AMD's 433-MHz Geode GX processor. In the next few weeks, Inveneo will upgrade to a 500-MHz version of the CPU, which will support 2GB of flash memory but still use six to eight watts of power. The S50 is a slim box integrated with a 14-inch colour liquid crystal display, completely solid state and without any fans, making it simple, durable and dust resistant.

Inveneo created a new Linux-based operating system for the S50, and a complete open source desktop application suite, including instant messaging, word processing, spreadsheet and Web browser. Each individual unit can be set up remotely for multiple users and remotely managed from the Inveneo server, called the Hub Station. Also integrated is a Linksys Analog Telephone Adapter, into which plugs the unit's standard telephone handset. VoIP is supported via Session Initiation Protocol.

The system usually is installed with a 100-watt solar panel, a charge controller module and a battery, which supplies enough power to run the unit for about 30 hours without any sunlight.

A ruggedized 802.11b/g access point plugs into the unit and can be mounted outside with one or two high-gain directional antennas to boost its range. The wireless link, which can make use of one or more Inveneo WLAN relay stations, connects the clients with the Hub Station, which supports 10/100 Base-T Fast Ethernet, and can be connected to the Internet via satellite, cellular, wireless broadband or standard PSTN landlines. The Hub also runs the open source Asterix IP PBX software.

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