Alum Onno Purbo wins the 2020 Postel Award

Posted by on November 18, 2020  /  0 Comments

Jonathan Postel was a legend. A single individual did what an entire bureaucracy does today in keeping the domain name system organized.

So when he passed, they created an award for him. And gave him the first one in 1999.

Now in 2020, the Postel Award has been given to LIRNEasia alumnus Onno Purbo. We congratulate Onno for this well-deserved honor. What he did before and after his association with us is what won him the approbation of the jurors of the Postel Award. Onno played an important part in one of our formative wins, something that defined LIRNEasia. In this post, what we can talk about is what we know.

Image of Onno Purbo at LIRNEasia research event in Indonesia, 2005

Onno Purbo at “LIRNEasia ICT policy and regulation research in Asia Networking Meeting” in October 2005

In 2004, Onno was teaching people how to build WiFi networks using low-cost components. The ICT for Development Team at IDRC were very impressed. We included the WiFi networks as part of our first program of research. Divakar Goswami was in charge. It was one of our first big wins, one in which the causal links were the clearest. Flowing from the work he had done before we came into the picture Onno also gave leadership to getting the 2.4 GHz Band freed up for WiFi.

The details of what we did to get the leased prices of Indonesia drastically reduced can be read elsewhere: “Geektivism” chapter 4 of the first LIRNEasia book. He was second author of that account. The point is that Onno’s technologically focused intervention is what got us involved in the first place:

Chapter 4 is about people who want to use networks, not about networks per se. It describes the massive volunteer-based ICT education campaigns conducted in Indonesia around connectivity, assisted among others by the IDRC. Faced with impossibly difficult conditions caused by bad policy, poor regulation and overall non-responsiveness from government, civil society activists such as co-author Purbo engaged in efforts to educate consumer/producers of communication services. Because of the strength of that educated community, Indonesian civil society was able to pull off a major policy reform, the unlicensing of the 2.4 GHz frequencies used for Wi-Fi.

This Section looks at how market participants, where policy and regulatory inadequacy compounded by hostilities from incumbent operators, have found their own solutions. These workarounds may not be optimal, as in the case of Wi-Fi being used for backhaul in the absence of reasonably priced leased lines (Chapter 6), but they are the best available alternatives.

As a former regulator I could not get my head around how WiFi could be used in the middle mile. Divakar went in with an open mind to see why Indonesia ISPs were doing what appeared to most industry people to be irrational. He discovered why, and we did something about it. Leased line prices came down dramatically, and people began to use WiFi in the normal way. This was an exciting interplay between geektivism of the type practiced by people such as Onno Purbo and Phil Zimmermann and the kind of policy research and advocacy we were familiar with. Ever since, we’ve been quite open to technology-focused interventions. For that, thank you Onno.

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