Riverboats help get remote parts of Amazon online

Abare boat hospital_Ericsson.jpg
Copyright: Hans Berggren/Ericsson

Speed read

  • The Amazon Connection project has brought the internet to remote Brazilians
  • A river was found to be extending the range of the base station’s signal
  • A hospital boat was linked into the network to boost medical care

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The world’s second largest river is home to some of the most remote communities in the world, but thanks to a recent connection drive they are now increasingly benefiting from internet access.

The Amazon Connection project has brought 3G (third generation) internet access — which can be used for voice and internet services — to rural communities living along the Tapajós River, a major tributary of the Amazon River.

The project is a partnership between Swedish communications company Ericsson, Brazilian telecom operator Telefónica Vivo and a local NGO Projeto Saúde e Alegria (The Health and Happiness Project). It is a part of a wider drive to connect remote area of the Amazon to the internet.

“Now we have 70 per cent of the Amazon with 3G coverage and that’s a great achievement for the Brazilian community as a whole,” says Bruna Barbosa, Ericsson’s sustainability and corporate responsibility manager in Latin America.
In 2009, the Amazon Connection project installed the first 3G base station in the remote Amazon town of Belterra in northern Brazil, bringing internet access to around 20,000 people.
Then the technicians noticed something peculiar: the nearby Tapajós River was “acting like a mirror”, extending the range of the 3G signal, says Barbosa.

“We have 70 per cent of the Amazon with 3G coverage and that’s a great achievement for the Brazilian community as a whole.”

Bruna Barbosa, Ericsson

The following year, the team fitted the Abaré hospital boat with a directional antenna wirelessly connected to the Belterra base station. This meant the boat, which provides healthcare to about 15,000 people in more than 70 small communities that are only accessible by river, could receive the signal farther from the base station, says Barbosa.  
Now the boat’s medical staff can use the reliable broadband connection to ask specialists elsewhere in the country for a second opinion. And they can send test X-rays and ultrasound images for further analysis, she says.
In addition, signal amplifiers fitted on the boat allow isolated communities to access internet services when it visits them.
The boat also has a speedboat ambulance to rescue patients in emergencies.
“Before [mobile and internet connectivity], when people in these communities got bitten by a snake, they couldn’t do anything … They would often die. But now they have signal so they can call and ask for a boat to take them to the hospital,” says Barbosa.

Since the success of the Abaré boat, the Brazilian government has begun a programme to launch 100 more riverboat hospitals. Almost 30 boats are already running and the government has guaranteed resources to install another 60 over the next three years, Fabio Tozzi, riverboat coordinator, tells SciDev.Net.
“Thanks to the successful experience of the Abaré boat, the Ministry of Health [in Brazil] has adopted a policy that ensures this type of service to all municipalities of the Amazon, and also the state of Mato Grosso do Sul [a central-western state],” says Tozzi.

Connectivity in these vessels acts as a safeguard to ensure the quality of care provided, he adds.

Positive impact

The Amazon Connection project has also provided internet access to Suruacá, a village in a nature reserve on the Tapajós River that is not connected to the electricity grid, and its school, says Barbosa.
Ericsson erected a solar and wind power system for the 3G base station that it built in the village.
“We have connected a school in Suruacá to provide a better education to around 150 students. Now they can access remote classes, digital libraries and have a twenty-first century education,” says Barbosa.
“Last year, the children in Suruacá connected via the internet and Skype with a school in Portugal [for the first time]. So now they can exchange experiences about what type of music they like, what type of food they eat and things like that.”
Caetano Scannavino, coordinator of Projeto Saúde e Alegria, tells SciDev.Net: “Most people think that the Amazon is only a big, empty forest with nobody living there. Internet access helps link the Amazonian people directly with the world. They can show not only that they exist themselves, but also their reality, challenges and culture. They cannot solve the problems in the Amazon alone and the internet is a tool that can bring more partners to help them.”
He says that, when the Amazon Connection project began, he was concerned that the Amazonian people might start to think negatively about their own culture.
“But, after some time, we heard from people in the communities with the internet that, through the internet, they could see a world that was so different from their own. They told us that the internet was very important for them to clearly see who they were and helped strengthen their own identity,” he says.
See below for an Ericsson video about the project: