London — Using Mesh Wi-Fi software that sits on a range of popular devices, US tech policy intervention start-up X-Lab has created a way of rolling out local connectivity. With two working examples in Somaliland and Tunisia, this is not just a good concept. Russell Southwood spoke to X-Lab founder Sascha Meinrath.
The software is called Commotion Wireless and is Open Source software that allows routers, android phones and linux laptops to all speak the same language and communicate using a mesh network. This allows communities to build their own networks out of these devices and they can either be connected to the Internet or use it solely as a local area network. Access to the network is identical to using a Wi-Fi network: once you have the software, you simply choose the network.
Commotion Wireless grew out of the political ferment in the late 1990s:"I was looking for a way of documenting what was happening on the street and we needed a mechanism to distribute it. I thought this is an interesting problem to have to solve so got a group of super-geeks together to do it. I didn't realise how complicated it would be to do but we did it and that's how we got to Commotion 1.0. It's not like a mobile hub-and-spoke network where the only way to communicate is through the central hub".
Mesh technology started with a heated debate about how much the available bandwidth would degrade as more hops were added:"The debates were around how with every hop, the bandwidth reduced by half. We've clearly demonstrated that it goes down but not in a linear fashion. Also it's often faster in the network than it is outside the network."
One of the working projects is in rural Somaliland, which is as Meinrath puts it, "in the middle of nowhere." The connection to build the mesh network came through Don Hastings who was appointed ICT instructor at Abaarso School of Science and Technology. He had heard of the software and once he'd managed to get some Ubiquiti routers into the country involved his students in setting up the network.
With various high points like water towers, the network covered the school itself (including the boys' and girls' dorms) and surrounding areas. Hastings says in his blog account:" I wanted to use the full sense of the term and make file sharing among my students easy and manageable. In order to solve this communication problem I decided to rely less on the outside Internet and rely more on local applications installed on our servers".
"I found the solution to our inconsistent and slow Internet by installing OwnCloud, an open source alternative to Dropbox, on our local server. Now students could share homework assignments with me and other teachers without having to rely on the Internet at all."
The school currently has a satellite connection but this is only available on an occasional basis so it is largely a local network. Somaliland will before too long be connected to international fibre but Abaarso remain a remote desert location.
It is precisely these kind of remote locations that have little or no chance of getting mobile coverage in the medium to long term. Nevertheless this kind of local area network has the potential to offer a VoIP based local network that would greatly improve the lives of those within its coverage area.
The second of X-Lab's working projects covers an urban area in Tunisia. The Sayada community network, Mesh Sayada, is a collaboratively designed and built wireless network. The town of Sayada is located on the Tunisian coast, 140 kilometers from Tunis and has somewhere around 10,000 inhabitants.
The network serves as a platform for locally-hosted content, such as Wikipedia and Open Street Maps. Since the network was put up, a local entrepreneur has launched an online radio station with talk shows. Meinrath says he found out about it on Twitter. Local residents and CLibre, a Sayada-based free technology association, initiated the network in December, 2013. Currently 70-80% of the town's population has wireless coverage.
The community installed one network server with Open Street Maps of Tunisia, Wikipedia in French and Arabic, a collection of 2,500 free books in French, an Etherpad application for collaborative document editing, and a MediaGrid application for secure chat and file sharing. A local developer created a local portal that links to each of these services. A DNS server on the network allows people to use comprehensible names such as SAYADA.MESH, WIKIPEDIA.MESH, and so on, to access the local applications.
The municipal government agreed to provide bandwidth for synchronization and proxy of particular sites (as providing an open connection to the Internet over the network would violate existing regulations). The community is planning to synchronize the existing Sayada web portal and the existing Sayada Wikimedia site, which are currently hosted in France. Several developers from around Tunisia have volunteered to contribute additional applications for the local network.
According to a case study on the project written by organisation X-Lab comes out of (New America Foundation) most points on the network are only one or two "hops" away from each other, with only a few routes on the network having three or four hops:"It was difficult to verify the number of hops a given bandwidth test would take, due to the dynamic and automatic nature of the mesh routing protocols".
"For the most part, throughput on single hop connections is very good. The maximum throughput on the PicoStation M2 units, under perfect conditions, is 32Mbits per second. Two of the well-connected single-hop links displayed good throughput numbers, 12.3Mbits per second on average. The discrepancy with the third single-hop link result of 3.6Mbits per second may result from a fluctuation in the link quality between two of the routers (SayadaLibre-4 and SayadaLibre- 3)".
Although Meinrath knows how many people are covered, he's not able to give user numbers as they are anxious not to use the network to be "surveilling the users." Nevertheless, he says that the use of applications on the network is in the hundreds and in some cases the thousands.
Is X-Lab looking to do more in Africa?:"We're looking for partners on the ground as part of our mission and support from Government and NGOs."
TV White Spaces has had a lot of airplay as an innovative, low-cost technology to improve access in Sub-Saharan Africa. This kind of Mesh Wi-Fi should also be added to the list for those African countries that want to use the most innovative technologies to crack providing low-cost Internet access.