I've finished breakfast, taken my daughter to school, made a fresh pot of coffee and am now dealing with my e-mail inbox. I've got an instant message from my niece. Few things give me greater pleasure than this, but I wonder what are they doing up so late at night? In America, it's past their bedtime. This is because I live in Nepal, halfway around the world from the States.
Nepal is the land of the Himalayas, located between China and India. The poverty here is so intense, the average westerner can't really imagine it. It's a small country with the land area and population of New York State, yet few people have running water in their homes and many live several days' walk from the nearest road. It has about two telephone lines, half a PC and even fewer Internet hosts per every 1,000 people. Still, I now have my choice of nearly a dozen ISPs. This is because I live in the Kathmandu Valley, Nepal's one real metropolitan area.
When I first came to Nepal in 1995, I don't think I saw a single "E-mail Here" sign anywhere in the tourist district of Thamel. A year later I joined a club where I could send and receive e-mail. They'd phone my hotel and read messages to me as they came in. In September 1998, we returned to live here and two ISPs offered Web access as well as e-mail. It took me awhile to figure this out. I'd never heard of e-mail-only access plans. I opted for the very expensive $100+ per month plan for unlimited access. I couldn't imagine life without the Web.
Now, a walk through Thamel is a stroll through a mecca of hyperconnected services - "Dialpad Here!" "E-mail Home, cheap, easy!" "Room with hotel e-mail system!" The Internet has landed. Many of my "bideshi" (non-Nepali) friends claim they couldn't live without their e-mail and even most of my educated Nepali friends use it regularly. Web use is far behind, though a search on Nepal will turn up thousands of sites, a few hosted here and used actively by would-be visitors from Europe and America.
Meanwhile, I am an unusual resident. I've chosen to use a US-based ISP - Earthlink - for my permanent e-mail address. I've configured my e-mail software to receive from Earthlink and send through my local ISP. It costs a bit more this way, but allows me to take advantage of the rapidly changing local access scene. I don't think any "global" ISPs offer local access numbers in Nepal. If anyone knows of one, please clue me in.
For visitors, there are a couple of options. If you bring along your own computer, you can sign up for any one of several pay-by-the-minute plans. There is real competition now among roughly a dozen ISPs and prices are constantly coming down. The two best-known ISPs are Mercantile Office Systems and Worldlink. Speeds can sometimes hit 56Kb/s but are usually in the 20s and 30s. You can also check your own mail at any street corner Internet cafe (a term not readily known here) or from your hotel's system if they allow it.
Has Nepal, and the rest of South Asia, entered the age of the Internet? That is a big question. Himal Magazine (covering countries of the Indian subcontinent) dedicated its November 1999 issue to the Information Age. One article, titled "No Backbone," makes the case that the entire region is so lacking in infrastructure that it can't begin to catch "even the tail end of the Information Revolution." (The title could refer to the fact that even with a multitude of ISPs, none in Nepal peer with each other. If two Nepalis e-mail each other from different ISPs, the messages first go through Singapore.) Yet, India exported over US$2 Billion (yes, billion) in code last year.
The answer depends on your vantage point. From where I sit, trying to grab just a tiny chunk of India's software export business, the Internet has arrived sufficiently. Interestingly, while Nepal is a welfare state with nearly everything funded by foreign governments, the net is one of the few pockets of real private enterprise. And it may be just the thing to revolutionize this land-locked, powerless country's
Technology-based businesses like mine have the potential to create middle-class wealth, which in turn creates demand for goods and services and maybe a new generation of accomplished potential leaders. If this happens, then the Net may accomplish a great deal of good without moving at "Internet speed" out into the peaceful, "communication-free" villages where people seem to be genuinely happy despite their intense poverty, where life has stood still for 1,000 years. Perhaps this is a very good thing.