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KZN schools get cut-rate Internet

New Cape Town company Wizzy Digital Courier has devised a way to bypass many of the costs of setting up and running a school computer LAN by using old equipment, the Linux operating system and Telkom's R7 Callmore package.

Wizzy co-founder Andy Rabagliati, who sits on the board of the Cape Town IT initiative Bandwidth Barn, came up with the idea a number of years ago and has set up the system with the help of his partner, Larry Wood.

The entrepreneurs have set up the system in four rural schools in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) in the past year.

Wood says that by using old computers connected to a server running Linux, the school is able to get around the costs of new computers and the licensing fees associated with Microsoft's Windows platform.

"We set up a thin-client computer network using old 486s or Pentiums. Thin-client networks are an established technology by which old computers act simply as a window to access the full computing power of a new and powerful server,” says Wood.

"This means that each ‘old' computer behaves like the new server, with each pupil having their own computing environment, with their own files, with all the computers running on Linux, which is free.”

To get around the dial-up fees or the costs of having a permanent ISDN line to the school, Wood says all the downloading is done at night using Telkom's R7 Callmore package. The teacher or pupils request Web pages to be downloaded and e-mails are written and stored on the server.

"Just after 7pm, the server logs onto the Internet and scoops each Web site requested, sends outgoing mail and downloads mail sent to users at the school and logs off before 7am.

"The total cost of the 12-hour call is only R7. In that time the server has downloaded between 200Mb and 250Mb of information using a 56k modem.”

Wood says Wizzy Digital Couriers has already set up the system in three schools in Eshowe and one in Ingwavuma.

Two of the schools had computers donated to them, so they only had to purchase the servers and cabling. With Linux being free, the schools' only other cost is paying for the downloading of the information.

"The lab in Eshowe High School has 400 students with their own e-mail addresses, for free. The students can access Web sites that have been downloaded by request of the administrator and surf them offline exactly as though they were online.

"This means that a school can now have complete control over the Web sites that the children can access, while the pupils have access to e-mail which is sent at night.”

Because the sites are stored on the server, there is no download time when they are viewed. The depth of the sites scooped depends on the administrator. While news sites can be downloaded and deleted once read, entire educational Web sites can be downloaded to compile reference archives. On average, around 30 home pages and the supporting sites are downloaded through a 56k modem in one night.

Wood points out the idea can be developed further. "We originally developed the idea for schools that had no access to a phone line. The only difference here is that in place of a phone line, information is downloaded elsewhere and is transferred by courier to the server at the lab using a USB flash card.

"Using this method a number of schools in a rural area can have access to the Internet using one school in the area that does have phone lines,” Wood says.

The two servers, 30 clients and the switches will cost around R100 000, excluding the setting up of the network and the cabling.

However, Wood points out that costs can vary. "With about 75% of the cost being the client computers, if the school already has computers, it's going to cost much less. Costs can also be cut by having one server instead of two and so on.”

He says many schools have old computers that are no longer in use. There are also old computers in companies and in people's homes that are not being used.

"These computers could all be put to use in rural schools to bring the Internet to children who have never accessed it before,” Wood says.

Wizzy Digital Courier is pitching the idea to the KZN education department for the roll-out of the programme in rural schools in the province.

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