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Community Networks 2 June 2021

Dr. Kanchana Kanchanasut: On Connecting with Communities

Dr. Kanchana Kanchanasut is defined by many firsts. She is well known for being the first Thai to establish email connection to the world. She was among the pioneers to establish Thailand’s research and education network. She registered the .th domain name, conducted Thailand’s first TV White Spaces trial, and started the first open and neutral Internet exchange point, BKNIX. TakNet, which she steers, is the first community network in Thailand.

It is therefore no surprise that Dr. Kanchana exuded a quiet strength in the Zoom interview as she talked about TakNet, the impact of COVID-19 and her upcoming plans to empower rural communities in Thailand.

Connecting Rural Communities and Making the Internet Relevant

TakNet was conceptualized during the 2011 flood crisis in Thailand when the intERLab she leads had to be temporarily relocated to the Ministry of Education. During that time, Dr. Kanchana and her intERLab team befriended officials at the Community Education Department and helped them set up an online learning network connecting Bangkok educators with community learning centers along the Thai-Myanmar border. This encounter linked Dr. Kanchana and her team up with communities in Tak.

Tak is one of the provinces that borders Myanmar, and it is inhabited by different ethnic tribes living in remote mountainous villages. TakNet aims to bring the Internet to these remote pockets. In 2013, 14 households in the village of Samakee were connected as a wireless mesh network, enabling their access to the Internet for the first time.

“At first, the villagers did not feel the need to connect to the Internet, and my team and I spent a lot of time convincing them to install routers in their homes. Once connected, however, they realize its usefulness,” said Dr. Kanchana.

The network has expanded since, and today, there are about 400 households in 30 communities connected by TakNet. The Thai government has a nationwide initiative to extend broadband Internet to every village by building fiber-optic networks, providing free Wi-Fi hotspots and mobile access nodes, as well as public Internet centers. However, children’s access to these public Internet centers is a problem. They could be quite far from their homes and parents expressed safety concerns.

Dr. Kanchana and her team recognized this issue from the start and focused on providing Internet connectivity directly to rural homes. During the COVID-19 pandemic this has become more important than ever as lockdown and social distancing measures are imposed, and education and work move online.

As TakNet expanded, Dr. Kanchana established a social enterprise called Net2Home in 2016 to manage the community network. Net2home provides the infrastructure and connectivity while community users agree to be part of the network and pay a monthly fee for technical support and maintenance. Each village has one or more local technicians trained by Dr. Kanchana’s team and are able to earn an income from installation fees and commissions if they get more members.

“Although Internet connectivity has improved significantly over the years, households continue to find TakNet more affordable and of better quality than commercial and government options. Each community has their own gateway, which enables Internet load balancing among the clusters, so the network is very stable.”

Dr. Kanchana and the intERLab team are constantly trying out new technologies and new Internet services to improve the lives of rural and remote communities, using TakNet as a research test bed. Some of the research work she has led include: the deployment of DUMBO routers for disaster risk management; the use of TV white space for broadband access; the development of low-cost video-on-demand system for rural schools; and the creation of an Internet of Things platform for real-time air quality monitoring.

“My team also developed a blockchain application for trading that we wanted to test with the community but due to COVID-19, we have not been able to roll it out with the community.”

Dr. Kanchana came from a family of medical doctors, yet she was determined to forge her own path by studying mathematics and computer science and spending most of her career at the Asian Institute of Technology, contributing to society in her own way.

In 2013, Dr. Kanchana was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame, and in 2016 she received the Jonathan B. Postel Service Award for her pioneering work in establishing the Internet in Thailand and Southeast Asia. But awards and recognition are not what motivate Dr. Kanchana.

“I am warmed by the recognition, but what keeps me going is the people in the community. It made me happy that DUMBO was useful even for a small group of people, like when the DUMBO routers were used by four hospitals for communication after the Nepal Earthquake in 2015.”

Building Digital Skills for a Thriving Community

“Now it is time to put our experience and learnings together in one package.” Dr. Kanchana is referring to her next big project – the THNIC Academy.

The Thai Network Information Center, or THNIC Foundation, is a nonprofit organization that promotes and facilitates the use of the .th domain name, supports Internet-related research, and builds capacity in Internet technology. THNIC has been supporting the growth of TakNet from the start.

A THNIC Academy Center was recently launched in Tak in March 2021 to build the digital skills and competencies of young people in Tak and create a network of young professionals who are geared towards supporting the aging population in Thailand.

“Right now, we are targeting high-school students, and training them in web programming and computational thinking. We have 27 students from different villages, and one group of students are planning to revamp the websites of hospitals and health centers that are currently just static websites with a few photos.”

Dr. Kanchana believes in the importance of cross-generational dialogue and understanding as Thailand’s population is aging rapidly and young people are moving to urban areas for study and work reasons. “Through THNIC Academy, I would like to create a bridge for youth to work together with rural communities to improve local farms, businesses, and services with the use of digital technologies. At the same time, we are creating a better future for rural young people.”

In fact, TakNet is built on this model of promoting cross-generational dialogue and understanding. Young volunteers who attend the annual Thailand Networking Group (THNG) Camps, supported by the THNIC Foundation, have been instrumental in TakNet’s success by building rapport with rural villagers and helping them install routers in their homes.

Dr. Kanchana finds that many community leaders in TakNet are women, and there are growing opportunities for women to excel in tech. As a woman in a male-dominated profession, she has faced many challenges but she has not allowed them to bring her down. She believes that challenges are opportunities to reflect upon the perspectives of others and develop better solutions. During these times of disruption and uncertainty, Dr. Kanchana’s message to the world is “Don’t be too rigid. Be flexible.”

Like TakNet that was conceptualized during a flood crisis, the COVID-19 crisis is an opportunity for reimagining the future of the Internet that is more inclusive, more equitable, and for everyone.

As COVID-19 rages on, community network champions around the world continue working tirelessly to increase the Internet’s reach and resilience. Read their stories.
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Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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