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Remote Access

Baja Community Scavenges for Tech Castoffs to Stay Connected

March 01, 2001|P.J. HUFFSTUTTER |

Tony Colleraine, a 60-year-old retired plasma physicist from La Jolla, shuffled past the wild dogs on the street and turned into a squat, bunker-like building marked with the sign: "The Net: Travel the Globe."

The concrete shack used to be a low-rent tourist bar known as the Deadly Viper. Now, it is the high-tech center for San Felipe--a dusty Baja town of 20,000 Mexicans, a few hundred American retirees and one Internet connection.

During the last four years, Colleraine and a small band of American retirees have stockpiled a collection of castoff computers by scavenging, begging and--when the situation called for it--using their RVs to slip past border guards and import laws.

"We take whatever we can get our hands on, even if it doesn't work or we don't know what it is," Colleraine said. "We are the very bottom of the computer world's pecking order."

In the furthest backwaters of the technological revolution, hundreds of miles away from the nearest computer store, a scavenger culture is being spawned out of the inescapable modern demand for instant community and connection.

The machines inside the Net are generations old: Stone Age in the computer world. Some have been cast off twice, once by Corporate America and a second time by schools in the United States to which they were donated.

Yet here in San Felipe, and in other remote places in the United States and abroad, there is an audience hungry to scoop up the road kill from the ever-changing electronic boom.

"We came here to get away from everything that modern life in the U.S. stands for," said Colleraine, his sun-faded brown eyes squinting in the cold glare of a Baja sunrise. "What we didn't realize is how much we still need it."

This morning, local kids join the dozens of expatriates who stroll into town and hang outside the Net. The crowd patiently waits in line for one of the eight working machines, casually sipping coffee and soda.

They are here all day, chatting and schmoozing in English and Spanish. They yak over their cell phones and take classes on building Web sites and using Excel to map ways to stretch their Social Security-backed budgets. They type e-mail messages by the score, chicken-pecking at the worn keyboards for $8 an hour.

That's a lot for the Net's 400 members, most of whom are American and Canadian retirees who moved to Mexico to stretch their fixed incomes a bit further. Members pay $30 a year to join the nonprofit center and fork over $4 for 30 minutes of time online.

The Net is barely breaking even, Colleraine said, because bandwidth costs eat up most of the center's income from membership dues and hourly rates.

Telnor, the Mexican phone company that serves northern Baja California, charges the Net nearly $1,300 a month for a 64-kilobit-per-second connection--25 times costlier and 25 times slower than what most people pay for a high-speed connection in the United States.

With several computers hooked to this data pipe, doing the most basic Web searching is painfully slow. It takes minutes to pull up the Yahoo front page, just so the retirees and locals can begin their online adventures.

There's not much of a tech scene here, a fishing village that did not have electricity until 1964. It is a town where a lulling pace of life has drawn thousands to its miles-long stretches of empty beach and emerald-green bays.

Fishing is the lifeblood of San Felipe. Generations of fishermen have spent their years slowly puttering large skiffs into the Gulf of California before dawn and spreading their nets along the cooling sand at dusk.

Sport fishermen--bargain-hunting anglers from up north looking to snare a cochito, or perhaps a few white sea bass--trickle through town, but it is a tiny number compared with the tourist crowds that head to Tijuana and Cabo San Lucas. Only the adventurous trundle down the bumpy road to finally reach this tiny slice of sand.

Despite its remoteness, San Felipe is tantalizingly close to storming into the digital revolution. Underneath the dunes a few miles outside of town lies a fiber-optic link to Mexicali that was buried in the sand several winters ago. It offers enough bandwidth to feed all the data needs of a small county.

But so far, no one has bothered to connect it to San Felipe.

Most of the residents of San Felipe don't know and don't care much about the gigabits of information that could one day flow through the fiber line. Fewer than 500 homes in this village of 20,000 have residential phone lines that actually work, locals said. Families are far more likely to have a television and a satellite dish than a rotary phone.

When people want to talk to one another, they use walkie-talkies and marine radios--or they simply walk outside.

But for the American expatriates in town, the lack of an easy and fast way to contact the States sharpens the sense of loneliness and disconnection from the hyper-speed world they left.

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