Kathmandu, Nepal

Ang Karma Sherpa, owner of WindHorse trekking, excused himself to answer his cell phone. It was the third incoming call in thirty minutes. Though this event isn’t unusual during a business day in many countries, what made these calls unique was their location.

Not only is this Nepal, where cellular communication is new, but Ang Karma had just hiked up a local peak with several of TechRepublic’s almostEverest climbers and WindHorse office staff. The group stood at 7,000 feet, among hundreds of flapping Buddhist prayer flags that adorned this ancient stupa, or Buddhist shrine.

Ang Karma returned, explaining that a homesick climber wanted to know if any rescue flights were coming into his area so he could get home. Ang Karma shrugged. “If he had called two hours earlier, I could have gotten him out.”

I asked him to explain the effects of new technology on his work. “Communications are very important for expeditions,” he said. “High tech has changed it for the better.”

While some professional climbers dismiss the value of high tech, saying, for example, that no one stuck on Mount Everest has ever been saved by a satellite phone, Ang Karma has a different take on the issue.

“Last week, one of my cook staff, a boy with some high-altitude experience, came down with pulmonary and cerebral edema (due to the altitude). They called me from a radio station in the area, and I was able to arrange a helicopter rescue”, he said. From his perspective, high tech can certainly save lives.

But saving lives isn’t the only value of communications. The well-publicized tragedy of Rob Hall, an Everest climber who perished on the mountain, occurred in 1996. Although his Iridium phone couldn’t save him, it enabled him to speak his last words to his wife. In such cases, high tech couldn’t be assigned a value—it is priceless.

But what about the value of high tech for the rest of Nepal? In the district known as Thamel, we discovered two or three Internet cafes per street that featured Pentium-class machines. This area, frequented by tourists from all over the globe, is a staging area for Himalayan treks, expeditions, and a cheap vacation spot. You can phone home and pay high prices, or send and receive e-mail. (Web-based e-mail is extremely popular.) At three rupees per minute (about 4.3 cents U.S.), Internet cafes offer high tech at dirt-cheap rates.

Once outside of Thamel, you’ll find very few Internet cafes, according to the manager of one of the district’s Internet storefronts. Ang Karma’s WindHorse trekking company relies on cell phones, as well as the Internet. He has a Web site, a contract with an ISP, and an e-mail address that he uses to make expedition arrangements with companies around the world.

Many small businesses find that an ISP is too costly, but they’ve discovered a solution: many owners pool e-mail into one account and share the cost. One such owner is Rajeev Baid, the proprietor of Amar Prem Gems in Thamel, who does not have a cell phone. Although Nortel put in the first cellular network last year, there are only 4,000 subscribers to date. The cost for service is too prohibitive—approximately $300 U.S. per year (about twice what the average Nepali earns), he said. That wage statistic indicates that Ang Karma is an exception, and one who is quick to realize the benefits of high tech for his expedition business.

Nepal, like many emerging nations, is rapidly developing a high-tech infrastructure. This will allow Nepal to reap many benefits, although many of the advantages are currently limited to the tourism industry.
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Mike Jackman is an editor-in-chief of TechProGuild, an editor of PC Troubleshooter and Windows Support Professional, and also works as a freelance Web designer and consultant. Together with his co-editor-in-chief David Bard, he is traveling to Nepal to report on high-altitude technology and to climb 20,285-foot Imja Tse. In his spare time (when he can find some), Mike’s an avid devourer and writer of science fiction, parent to two perpetually adolescent cats, and a hiking enthusiast.