Sick of waiting around until telecommunications companies bring you a faster and cheaper Internet? Some techies believe there’s no need to wait around anymore. They have started to build their internet networks themselves, from the bottom up.
By Julie Blussé
When Steve Song shows off a small, unassuming white plastic box he named the ‘Mesh Potato’, it’s obvious he’s proud of his brainchild. The Wi-Fi device “can be plugged into anything else”, the South African and Canadian tech entrepreneur boasts, from analogue phones to laptops and weather monitoring devices.
Most impressively, the potato automatically establishes a spider web-like mesh network with other potatoes nearby, allowing even the greatest technophobes to build a mini-internet that allows free phone calls, file-sharing, and even sharing one connection to the global Internet with hundreds of other users.
Many small communities across Africa are doing just that. Armed with mesh potatoes, or tinkered-with routers, cell phones and other basic technological equipment, people are building self-sufficient and cheap communications networks, without help from companies and governments.
Or rather, as many would phrase it, without interference from companies and government. Because these days, many techies believe the biggest barrier to a better African internet has little to do with technology, and everything with government regulation over the African airwaves - airwaves that are vital to the development of the continent’s internet.
Most people are connected to the internet via a central hub, over a so-called star network. When one user e-mails others, the data have to travel through this hub first before fanning out to other users. In a mesh network, people form the network instead of just using it. They send data to each other directly.
A spectrum is haunting Africa
Why are airwaves so important? Experts agree that Africa’s internet future is wireless: most future internet data will travel over airwave frequencies, just like radio broadcasts. Using cables to connect the continent’s rural communities is way too expensive, and the majority of African internet users already go online via cell phones.
That makes airwave frequencies, or spectrum, a precious commodity. Without access to the airwaves, you can’t build the Internet network people need. Yet spectrum is currently mostly in the hands of incumbent telecommunications companies, who see little economic incentive to extend their reach far outside the city.
“For sparsely populated rural areas, there simply isn’t the economic case for mobile operators to put up towers,” Song explains.
For smaller entrepreneurs like Song, who are interested in providing access to rural communities, “getting access to wireless spectrum is a huge challenge”, Song says.
Most of the spectrum has been auctioned off years ago to the major telcos in multi-million dollar deals, and even when these companies don’t actually use the airwaves to create wireless cell phone or Internet networks outside the city, their licenses forbid small companies to pick up the slack and offer their own services.
“What’s missing is room for the small entrepreneur in providing access where it’s needed,” Song says. In South Africa, he found that “you don’t have to go very far to find the fringes of telecommunications networks. Urban centers and major highways are generally well-served, but once you step off there, access is a lot harder to find”.
It’s a catch-22: the small companies who want to build cheaper, more nimble communications networks to reach rural communities can’t afford spectrum licenses. Yet the big multinational communications operators who hold the spectrum licenses are unwilling to extend their networks to rural communities, where they can’t recoup the costs of their more expensive infrastructure, and make negligible returns on investment.
Cantennae: antennae built from cans
Luckily, techies like Song have found a workaround.
“The opportunity that appeared to me was the potential of unlicensed spectrum," Song explains, referring in particular to Wi-Fi. In most countries, Wi-Fi is left unlicensed so that people can set up small wireless networks in cafés or office networks. Since Wi-Fi signals peter out after a few meters, communications operators don’t see the Wi-Fi frequency as a commercial threat.
But with the help of cheap, homemade ‘cantennae’ – antennae built from cans – and routers like the Mesh Potato, Wi-Fi signals can be concentrated and extended to a few kilometres. That means an entire village can connect over Wi-Fi. And by creating a daisy chain of Wi-Fi devices, such a network can also provide access to an internet connection up to 50 kilometres away.
Michael Adeyeye, a tech entrepreneur, has set up a few of these networks already in Nigeria.
“It’s very easy to deploy – you can have it up in a very short time,” he explains enthusiastically. At the University of Ilorin, Adeyeye and colleagues at Asmic Computers created a mesh network that that not only provides internet access across the campus, but also offers services for staff and students that work only on the mesh network itself, such as e-learning applications.
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In a neighbourhood of the city of Ibadan, Adeyeye used mesh technology to set up a network that provides internet access, but also functions as something more old-fashioned: a phone network that allows users to call each other for free over analogue phones. That might seem outdated, but in a country like Nigeria, where cell phone users spend an average of 16 percent of their disposable income on phone calls, mostly to reach people who live close-by, a network that routes phone calls over Wi-Fi can make a big difference.
Adeyeye says that even though most participants in the mesh network own cell phones, “when they want to talk at length, they go back to the mesh potatoes, because it’s free.”
Using a different approach, others are trying to gain access to spectrum that is licensed, but not being used. Chomora Mikeka, a physics lecturer at the University of Malawi, was able to convince the local regulator to allow him to experiment with white spaces, a lower frequency on the spectrum that is meant for TV broadcasting but little used in many countries.
In one his earlier experiments, he proved that many frequencies are left unused across Malawi, which helped convince regulators that his networks wouldn’t interfere with TV broadcasters.
“We are optimizing usage of spectrum, instead of letting it lie fallow, and the regulator is excited with this idea, too,” says Mikeka.
For the overwhelmingly rural population of Malawi, Mikeka believes white spaces are a better option than Wi-Fi. White spaces signals can reach much further than Wi-Fi signals –up to 20 kilometres during a recent experiment of Mikeka – and they also easily penetrate walls and trees, which is difficult to do with Wi-Fi.
Together with his students, Mikeka has already set up a connection between a high school and the University of Malawi, allowing students to access the university’s library materials and make use of the university’s internet connection.
He has also set up connections for a hospital and a seismology department, which now tracks data coming in from tremor monitors across the country over the internet.
For now, Mikeka has only connected a few hundred people, but he believes that with a little luck and the regulator’s blessings, he can use the technology to extend an internet connection to half the Malawian population in two years.
And why stop there?
“This technology has huge potential, and African countries share so many similarities,” Mikeka asserts. So at the recent African Internet Governance Forum, Mikeka preached the benefits of the mesh. And he did so with great success. After his talk, enthusiastic participants from across the continent expressed their interest. According to Mikeka, “[People in] Uganda would like to have it done, Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria – some have even already bought equipment.”