People

Onno W. Purbo: Opening
windows for knowledge

JP/Prodita Sabarini

The Indonesian Internet society dubs him the “web evangelist” for his struggle to protect affordable Internet access in Indonesia.

The moniker suits Onno W. Purbo, 48, an IT writer and activist for Internet access, who says both his work and philosophy make him a champion for access to information.

The former civil servant who once worked as a lecturer at the prestigious Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB) was recently awarded the Tasrif Award by the Independent Journalist Alliance (AJI) at the alliance’s 16th anniversary. The AJI honored his work in setting up RTRW-net, a community-based internet infrastructure making affordable Internet access possible for people in rural areas.

The award was the latest in a string of commendations recognizing Onno’s work on the Internet. Among them, he received the ASEAN Outstanding Engineering Achievement Award from the ASEAN Federation of Engineering Organizations in 1997 and the Golden Award for Indonesian Telematics Figures by the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce in 2000.

Onno views the AJI award as acknowledgement of what he and “the kids” — his nickname for internet activists — have achieved.

“It is recognition of the struggles we have overcome. Our struggle has a simple goal. We want to see an informed Indonesia that can prosper from their own brainpower. One of the ways Indonesians can gain useful knowledge is to facilitate affordable Internet and telephone access,” Onno says.  

Onno is an energetic man, who is quick to laugh and talks fast with a slight Sundanese accent. Sitting in front of a black laptop, Onno proudly told the story of his activism promoting cheap Internet access.

Onno set up the Computer Research Network Group (CNRG) in mid 1994, which helped pave development of Indonesia’s Internet access. Between 1996 and 1998 Onno and CNRG first experimented with connecting to the Internet using the 915 Mhz band, the frequency used by the GSM operator.

Not long after he was visited by an army officer and was summoned by the Communications and Information Technology Ministry’s Post and Telecommunications Director General, who told him to cease his experiments and use another frequency.

Onno wrote the book Teknologi Warung Internet (Internet Cafe Technology) in 1999, and was
active in several mailing lists spreading knowledge on how to build a simple Internet connection infrastructure.

In less than a year, some 1,000 internet cafes flourished in Indonesia. Computer scientist Gunadi developed a device called Wajanbolic, a USB Wi-Fi client using a cooking wok as its parabolic reflector, Onno said, adding that he helped spread this technology using the website opensource.telkomspeedy.com.

“A long time ago, which is actually only a decade ago, a person would have to pay around Rp 23 million per year for the frequency,” Onno said.  In 2000, before wireless Internet connections were common in Indonesia, he clandestinely pioneered a wireless Internet connection using the 2.4 Ghz band, connecting Bandung-based campuses such as ITB, Padjadjaran University and Parahyangan University to circumvent the Rp 23 million fee regulated by the government. “They were reluctant to arrest me because I was a lecturer,” he said.

But Onno did not want to stop there. “They didn’t know that I had crazy strategies. They thought this “Onno person” is polite. But I’m not. They said I had to change the frequency, so I did, but I also spread the know-how on how to use another frequency to connect to the Internet,” he said.

“By early 2000 Internet cafes were using devices like satellite dishes,” Onno said, but this was
the same year the government initiated a crackdown on internet cafes using the 2.4 Ghz band. In response Onno resigned from his position as a technical advisor to the Post and Telecommunication Director General (Dirjen Postel), vowing to never set foot within the office again, although he eventually did after the ministry freed the 2.4 Ghz band in 2005, when Onno believes his struggle finally convinced the government to “open its eyes”.

With support from Internet activists like himself, the spread of knowledge through wireless Internet infrastructure helped Indonesia build an internationally recognized network of wireless connections, Onno said.

He was invited to speak about Indonesia’s experience in establishing grass roots internet infrastructure at the World Summit on Information Society in both 2003 and 2005.  

International recognition of his work persuaded the government to appreciate the merits of his struggle, Onno said.

His determination to facilitate access to knowledge does not stop at Internet infrastructure and access only. Onno is a fervent critic of patents and copyrights.

He also writes e-books and publishes them on the internet for free. His facebook profile is open to the public and he replies to people’s questions on various matters on Information and Communication Technology (ICT).

His idealistic beliefs on open source technology led to his departure from ITB, where he and all his siblings were educated and where his late father was a professor.

“Two days before I resigned there was a seminar on copyrights. There were dozens of professors giving talks,” Onno said, adding that all the professors supported copyrights. “I spoke last. I said I don’t believe in copyrights. I said I believe that it would be better if we just spread knowledge,” he said.

“I was still a lecturer at ITB at that time. People say it’s easy for me to talk because I am a lecturer. But I still have to prove myself, so I resigned,” Onno said.

Was he scared of leaving a settled life? “Of course I was”, he said. But, every time he faces doubt and fear, he returns to the hadith (the deeds) of the prophet Muhammad.

“A person’s value is not measured by fortune, rank or title, but more by the benefits he or she provides for others,” Onno said.

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