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Jhai PC: Low-cost computer links villages to the Web

Rugged Internet portal designed for Laos now attracts interest in 65 countries.

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Lee Thorn: In this 2003 file photo, the head of the Jhai Foundation speaks into a walkie-talkie while testing Internet access in Ban Phon Kham, Laos. Village officials look on.

Apichart Weerawong/AP/File

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In the small Hmong village of Phonsavad in Laos, three hours upriver from the nearest road, the Jhai PC is a portal to another world. Built to withstand monsoon rains and extreme temperatures and linked to the Web by satellite, the tough computer brings villagers weather reports, current prices for their rice crops and weavings, and contact with relatives living abroad.

It comes with a communications suite that both literate and illiterate villagers can use and will eventually host a videoconference kit for checkups with doctors. The computer costs about $200 and can charge its battery from a generator powered by pedaling a stationary bike.

All of this would seem to put it in the company of One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), the Intel Classmate, and other high-profile, low-cost PCs targeting the developing world.

But the Jhai PC is the product of a relatively small nonprofit in San Francisco, the Jhai Foundation, and a friendship between Jhai founder Lee Thorn and computer engineer Lee Felsenstein.

What sets their Jhai PC project apart – and has quietly garnered interest from 65 countries – is that it expects something in return: financial sustainability.

"There are tens of thousands of dead computers in rural villages all over the world," says Mr. Thorn. "The real problem of sustainability is how do people make money off this [technology] so they stay interested in it for a long time. Otherwise it's just some white guy’s dream."

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