Onno The Liberator!

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Onno the Liberator!:

A Very True, Very Short Story

Rich Fuchs1
Director, Information and Communications Technologies for Development
International Development Research Centre

June 2005 “It is liberated!” It’s the first thing he says to me after more than a year. “It never would have been liberated without IDRC.’ He’s not kidding. Onno Purbo doesn’t give plaudits gratuitously. He and a broad coalition of cybercafes, Indonesian telecentres, or Wartels, and Internet activists are loosely assembled in a movement called RebelNet. They have been pressuring for this change for almost a decade. The “tipping point” came early this year.

On January 5, 2005, the new Government of Indonesia declared that the 2.4 MHZ spectrum, often referred to as the “last mile”, was free for unlicensed and unregulated use. It had been liberated and Dr. Onno Purbo was the liberator. A “celebrity” Internet advocate in the country, Pak Onno had been close to those with power before. In the late 1990’s he was a Presidential advisor on a blue ribbon panel that had produced a forward looking report called Nusantara, or archipelago, 21. But as he puts it “At that time I didn’t have any mass!’

He had been a mild-mannered engineering professor at the leading technology university in the country, Institute of Technology Bandung. A generation earlier his father had led the Indonesian movement to introduce environmental stewardship and sustainable community development in the society. Pak Onno watched as the forward-looking “Nusantara” report became the leverage for large grants to even larger public bureaucracies that produced almost no change. His family’s genetic code to do something important in the society drove him to make a major change in his life.

He quit his comfortable job teaching engineering and became the spokesperson and lightening rod for the Indonesian people to become, in his words, “knowledge producers.” Rather than Associate Professor, his new business card reads “Works for the People of Indonesia”. He helped to crystallize an entire movement in this tropical country of 17,000 islands and 230 million people.

His principal methodology was to go from meeting venue to hotel conference room when there was a sponsor and university and school meeting halls when there wasn’t, 3 nights a week. For a $5 admission fee, the 300-500 people that attended would learn how to spread Internet services using wireless data transmission on the 2.4 MHZ radio spectrum. As well, they would have access to his website that distilled the 40 books he had written on the subject and gave access to more than 1,000 Yahoo groups. “It has to be self-financing, community-based and sustainable”.

The government was the regulator and licensor of the spectrum. Pak Onno’s simple question “why can’t the people of Indonesia use it?” The telephone company and Ministry of Transport and Communications had all sorts of reasons why not. None of them were acceptable to him and his growing movement. They were trying to democratize what the telecoms demagogues controlled: a virtual storming of the Bastille.

It hadn’t been easy. They dealt with threats from incumbent politicians and public officials. Indonesian “polisi” had seized equipment he had installed to support educational and community WiFi access. Friends and colleagues had been put in jail. His family’s celebrity kept him from that fate, but only just.

He is insistent that the time he spent working at IDRC was the lever that led to the actual policy change. In his words “I had the knowledge but IDRC elevated the value of my knowledge.” Onno spent a year working with IDRC in South Africa, Bangladesh, Canada, India and Europe. Through this he had been centre-stage at the World Summit on the Information Society in Geneva in December 2003. Word was leaking back home about this celebrated Indonesian “digital divide” champion. Diminutive in stature but gargantuan in energy and knowledge, he had taking his home-game on the road. And people liked it, admired him and wanted him to succeed. The engineer prof, turned local digital activist, was becoming an internationally recognized Liberation Technologist.

Along with authoring 3 books, giving countless workshops on wireless internet access and mentoring a new generation of aspiring internet liberators around the world, his last act at IDRC was a concluding presentation at the Indonesian Embassy to Canada. It was the early Spring of 2004. Ambassador Eki Sjacrudin was host for the meeting. In the well appointed embassy board room, with every seat filled, were diplomats, local Indonesian leaders in Canada and, most importantly, members of the Indonesian media2.

He did interview after interview with each one of them. By the time the story made its way back to Jakarta it had grown, bigger, taller and greater than even he had imagined. There was an election soon to be held in Indonesia. A new President would be elected later that Fall. He promised to produce important changes within 100 days of being elected. On January 5, 2005, nearly 100 days from the new government’s ascendance, the Minister responsible, M. Hatta Radjasa, issued the new decree3! Years of community organizing, an elevated platform from which to preach and a new regime looking for popular new polices provided the right ingredients.

Now high school teachers, university students and local community activists can “spread” access to the internet. The unlicensed spectrum provides for no-cost, wireless transmission over a radius of almost 6 kms. It’s just the monthly cost of 1 internet access point, roughly $400, and community imagination and organization to bring the cost down. Since the new policy more than 1,000 new internet points of presence are blossoming in the country every month.

Like the bear that sees another mountain, the liberation is far from complete. There’s the more powerful 5.8 MHZ spectrum that is the next challenge. Local governments, seeing all this new activity, are trying to find ways to tax it. In one case they’ve levied a tax based on the height of the transmission tower, rather than the number of users. Onno smiles when he tells this story. He and the millions in RebelNet know how to make really tiny transmission devices.