Monday, June 18, 2012

Educational WLANs for Villages in Developing Countries

Interested in ways to bring world class education and vocational training to a village in the developing world on the cheap?

That is our mission.  We would like to help you.

We have traveled down the road you are considering and would like to share our experiences with the goal of helping you achieve your vision.

Today we met a new friend working on a project in Nicaragua and had a good email exchange.  I thought the dialog would be valuable for others interested in educational, healthcare, and economic development projects in Africa, Central America, and SE Asia.

<< Begin Message >>

On Sun, Jun 17, 2012 at 10:05 PM, Mark nigogosyan wrote:

I live in Lacrosse, Wisconsin and my wife and I are very involved as a volunteer for Global Partners, a nonprofit group that has been going to Nicaragua now for 3 years.

A big component of our project is community development in a few small remote villages in Nicaragua  Santa Celia and Santa Marta (a mile or so North).

Education,  Health care, and business development are issues we work on.  We have been doing some hard thinking on what might help jump start some businesses there and an "internet cafe " came to mind.  This could be a business and might have nice secondary effects in the community.  I was even thinking about funding via Kiva (if you don't know it worth a look).  The rub is that there is barely cellphone service (one bar when you walk to the top of a knoll).

I have been doing some investigating and came across your sight and got very excited!  

I would greatly appreciate some more details from you (email, references, even Skype chat) so I might understand what is involved.  I am pretty geeky (very amateur programmer, built several computers from ground up, know how to set up home wireless networks, incessantly tooling around with my mac, etc).  I don't have any experience setting up long range wifi's and would like to get an idea of the feasibility of this.  I understand wifi is line of sight(?) so I thought one bar might suggest the possibility of more signal if it was on a tower.

Any thoughts you might have would be greatly appreciated!

Mark Nigogosyan

La Cresecent MN

On Jun 18, 2012, at 8:50 AM, G Jason Schnellbacher wrote:
Hello Mark.

Thanks for reaching out.  We would love to help.

After some hands-on experience in-country, we figured out that open Internet like what we enjoy in the States is not economically sustainable unless the local telecom operator is a partner.  The cost of "backhaul" (the wholesale ISP pipe) is simply too expensive.  Subsequently, we observed this same problem in other deployments in the developing world; funding eventually dries up and the networks go dark.

However, the potential benefits to the community are undeniable. The opportunities for education, healthcare, and business development are real. 

In the absence of developing a partnership with the local teleco or government, we concluded the only way to ensure a sustainable deployment was to build local area networks with 'local' intranet content hosted on servers within the community.

Is there power available in the communities you would like to serve?  Do you have anyone that has a willingness to learn that would be available to be the network administrator on-site?  If you have both of these then you may have a good opportunity.

With power available and a secure place to host a little bit of equipment, you could probably get everything set up for around $5K (including UPS battery backup).  You would need to plan for the following:
  1. Purchase an eGranary ($3,500 + shipping)
  2. Recruit a network administrator from the local community that has a knack for problem solving and budget the annual salary in your business plan)
  3. Purchase some WiFi equipment or try to get donations for used WiFi equipment to provide access to the eGranary server within the local area network ($500 or less depending on coverage area needed).
  4. Seek donations for used laptops, netbooks, and tablets with WiFi (If you're the hacker type, maybe even check out Raspberry Pi  and see if you can build computers on the cheap with old monitors?).   This could even be a trade for the village to make money; building computers based on Raspberry Pi and selling them to other villages.  We recommend Ed-Ubuntu OS; free, stable, and includes educational materials.
  5. Purchase an uninterrupted power supply (UPS) for battery backup in case there are disruption in power (which happen often in the developing world as I am sure you know) and take it with you on a trip (but note, these can be heavy so plan ahead with regard to airline baggage fees).
We revised the vision with the attached presentation.  The new strategy is all about locally hosted content.  Future visitors can always bring new content from the States or wherever via 'sneaker-net' (bring it with you on USB drives).  The missions department at my church loves this idea because they could get healthcare workers from the congregation to give lessons on different topics relevant to the partner community and have them recorded and translated so they can be watched in-country without buffering or interruptions in the video quality. This way medical professionals can volunteer and participate in missions without actually traveling.  It was seen as a win-win-win deal for everyone involved.  You could explore something similar if you want.

There is an online demo available here if you would like to see how it works:

Hope this helps.

Do you have any other questions?

How do you want to proceed?


On Mon, Jun 18, 2012 at 2:39 PM, Mark nigogosyan wrote:
So kind of you Jason-thanks!

Electricity-yes they have it.

I understand your point about an ISP pipe being pricey but what would stop me from, say, getting 100 kbit service in our home office in San Ramon, popping a directional antenna to Santa Marta 5 miles uphill, and getting the village (entrepreneur) access to distribute and augment Egranery.

In other words I might use wifi for local distribution but also for a point of aces to the Internet.
Internet down? Then I could have the intranet (egranery) still running.

Biggest rub? Very little English knowledge in these villages.  I understand most of egranery is in english  but a big advantage is if there were English lessons for the students cached on egranery.

As for an administrator, I'll need to check that out.  What a great opportunity for a motivated smart kid.

Can you give me more detail on the wifi hardware needed? Any prepackaged directional wifi kits floating around?

Mark Nigogosyan

Sent from my iPad

On Jun 18, 2012, at 3:10 PM, G Jason Schnellbacher wrote:

Hello again.

Glad to be of service.

You should definitely be able to get an ISP connection in San Ramon and shoot it line of sight to Santa Marta (if it is 5 miles away).  The key is line of sight and the associated elevation.  No trees or hills in the way.  If you have that, it should be no problem.

Then in Santa Marta, you could further distribute with WiFi with one or a handful of hotspots depending on the size of the area you want to cover.

If you do this though, you could easily overload the ISP connection to the point where it would be unusable. To solve this problem, you could use the ISP connection to sync the eGranary with updates or for SMTP (email)  only or whatever.  Maybe even limit outside Internet access to people that pay?  That was the idea we liked best... eGranary and local communications within the WLAN or other villages/networks interconnected via some type of point-to-point WAN and if people want to use the 'outside Internet' then it requires a small payment. That could maybe help fund the salary of the village network administrator. Remember, you will have to continue to pay the cost of the ISP every month so have a good plan for that.

There is some Spanish content but not much.  However, if you can find your own content (from the department of education in Nicaragua or elsewhere) you can load your own content and make it indexable/searchable on the WLAN. Ideal content would be the Spanish GED equivalent and other guided study programs. I am sure you could connect with a prominent library in the Spanish speaking world to try and get license to some of their online content. WiderNet, the group that created the eGranary, may even be able to help you (but may want to get paid; not sure).

I know the Khan Academy has over 1100 lessons in Spanish (and believe these are already included in the eGranary but if not, you could request to have them added or add them yourself). These are really good and were recently featured on 60 Minutes.

Additional FAQ on eGranary

I think you can find what you need to make the eGranary valuable to the community.  Remember, you can always add more content over time.

The WiFi equipment will depend on what exactly you want to do.  If you want long range point to point links, you will need two Ubiquiti Bullet M2s and two high gain grid antennas (with female-N connectors).  

If you want to set up a mesh network for access throughout the village, you can do that multiple ways depending on your budget and technical capabilities.  If you are good with Linux and some troubleshooting, you can buy Ubiquiti M5 Nanostations for backhaul and Picostations M2 for access and flash them with new firmware to mesh them.  However, this is only recommended for experienced Linux sys admins familiar with WiFi network design.  The easier path would be to buy some commercial WiFi equipment that can mesh and provide an nice management console (we've had good success with Ruckus).  Or if you only need one AP for a library/internet cafe type place, then that is the easiest of them all. Just buy one Ubiquiti Picostation M2, mount it on a pole, and crank up the power to 1W; that should get you 100m radius coverage outdoor. Indoor coverage range would depend on the building materials.

If you just did the 1 PtP link and the 1 Picostation in the village, you would be looking at around $400 USD for the Ubiquiti WiFi equipment and antennas.

Hope this helps.

Let me know if you need anything else.


On Mon, Jun 18, 2012 at 3:32 PM, Mark nigogosyan wrote:

You're the man Jason!

I am going to tak to my partners and give you an update....

Monday, September 19, 2011

WiFi for Trading Centers in Developing Countries

Consider This:

  • 2G GSM towers are widely deployed worldwide
  • Extremely inexpensive 1000mW point-to-point WiFi gear can deliver excellent throughput over long distances to connect towers in ring topologies
  • High performance mesh WiFi routers that can cover the most important areas of a trading village in developing countries can be as low as $2000 to $3000 (based on prices in America). 
  • Affordable Android-based WiFi tablets (under $199) and dual-SIM Android phones (under $99) with economies of scale in the BILLIONS made in China will hit the market within a year
  • Substantial numbers of refurbished laptops donated from America and Europe are just waiting for wireless service
  • Operators can bring cached "offline" content to the network for a true high speed experience 

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Ultra Low Cost WiFi with Local "Offline" Intranet Content & Communications

Did you know that bandwidth in Africa can cost up to 100 times what it costs in the U.S. and even if you can afford it the speeds are typically quite slow?

Do you remember the days of dial-up in the US? Slow internet is super frustrating.

If internet is not available, unreliable, or too expensive you need local "offline" content; bring the servers local to the network.  Take the best parts of the internet and the most important features and make them local to the network.  Instead of users trying to hit servers in the US, bring copies of the servers to Africa.  This way it will be fast and the users will have a good experience.

Think of it like a big enterprise "intranet" for a village, city, region or even a country.  With WiFi, the air interface can handle the speeds; the bottleneck is the "backhaul" connection to the internet.  With 2G/3G cellular, the air interface can be a major limitation; but not with WiFi.  The 4G air interface is better but too expensive for wide deployment in Africa and the developing world.

Inexpensive Android smartphones and tablets with WiFi made for the Indian market will soon be arriving in Africa.  Lenovo recently announced a $199 Android tablet.  Huawei, Samsung, and Micromax all make Android based 3G phones with WiFi.

Refurbished laptops from the US or Europe are arriving in Africa by the millions.  WiFi devices are available and more will be coming very soon.  Over 80% of all smartphones made have WiFi now.  And in the US and Europe, over 50% of the people carry smartphones with WiFi.  The device upgrade cycle is typically around 18 months; how long will it be before more and more of these WiFi devices arrive in Africa?  Think about it...

Why subsidize or try to manage the supply chain of devices; don't tie up capital or credit in inventory. Let the open market supply affordable WiFi devices with the power of economies of scale in the BILLIONS. If you don't have to subsidize; don't! You will be much more profitable.

The other problem with 4G (both WiMAX and LTE) is the cost of access devices and modems. With such a new, frequency band fragmented, technology the cost of devices can be very expensive and certainly prohibitive for most in Africa. If the price of modems is high you will have a smaller addressable base for which to sell service. How many people can really afford that device if it is not subsidized? This is a tough position to be in; especially if you just spent all your wad building that new, expensive 4G network.

You don't have that problem with WiFi. Granted it is more complicated to cover larger areas with WiFi than a low frequency cellular technology but it can be done. Plus, people are used to walking to access conveniences; not everywhere needs to have high speed internet/intranet. Building hotspots in the central business district "trading center", around schools or hospitals, will be sufficient in the beginning.

New to our project? Basically, we want to help increase the Internet penetration rate in Malawi and developing countries through the introduction of ultra-low-cost WiFi technology that can be used point-to-point for long distances (tested up to 36km with LOS) and meshed to create hotzones in the villages across Malawi. Most villages can be covered for less than a couple thousand USD (excluding tower space and access to high speed Internet) while cheap WiFi devices (like $199 Android tablets) will be coming soon.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Empower a Microbusiness with Solar Powered Light Bulbs

Do you believe in empowering smaller entrepreneurs around the globe? Check out this solar light bulb that could potentially make a huge impact on the 1.4 billion people around the world who don't have access to an electrical grid. This social entrepreneur believes that the charity model of aid used by nonprofit organizations doesn't work -- despite its good intentions. Instead he believes selling the solar bulbs in a capitalist free market, instead of donating them, will help more people in developing countries. Social entrepreneurship helps create more jobs and a network of dealers and distributors that can then be utilized to sell more/other products and ultimitely build a more robust economy in developing countries.

Thank you Chris Swanda for this great article.

Please post a comment with links to related articles.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Case for WiFi in Developing Markets

With advancements in WiFi technology and economies of scale in the BILLIONS, a pair of new carrier grade, high power 802.11n outdoor WiFi radios can be deployed with high gain grid antennas for line-of-sight point-to-point long distance links up to 36km with up to 100Mbps+ of real TCP/IP throughput for less than $300 USD while tiny outdoor access points with 1000mW of output power that can cover up to 100m and handle up to 54Mbps are less than $100 USD. And to expand the coverage area, a pair of meshable 5GHz nanostations with up to 10km of range and support for up to 25+Mbps of throughput performance can be purchased for $150 USD. All together, a meshed three node system to cover the market area of a trading center village would cost less than $1000 USD. Of course, shipping, duties, and taxes would affect true prices outside the United States.

That is amazing; around 300m (~1000ft or 23 acres) of WiFi coverage with backhaul and long-distance transmission for only $1000 USD. That means a telecommunications provider with fiber Ethernet ports and tower infrastructure could provide high speed internet services to the market area of trading center villages for $1000 USD per village (excluding deployment costs, shipping, and duties). Even if coverage is expanded into residential areas most towns could be covered for less than $10,000 USD.

How do these costs compare to deploying a cellular-based system? Typically between 1/10th and 1/5th from most reports.

And even better, there is no need to subsidize devices or require expensive modems; that means a larger addressable market when cheap WiFi devices hit the market soon. WiFi is now standard on smartphones; over a BILLION WiFi chips will ship in 2011.

The other thing nice about these WiFi networks are the ability to interconnect villages for peer-to-peer communications and add local area content that resides on an external hard drive connected to the headnode router via USB.

This means that if the internet is not available, goes down or is slow, local content will be fast; even supporting high quality video streaming. New content can be distributed via USB flash storage and motorbikes.

Villages can then be interconnected in ring topologies to facilitate commerce through a One Village One Product "craigslist style" online classifieds portal and peer-to-peer communications.

This is the perfect middle mile and last mile solution for providing affordable internet services in developing economies where price sensitivity is the number one requirement.

Interested in learning more? Contact us at malawiwifiproject[at]gmail [dot] com.

Like our project? Meet our partner in Malawi, Kameko Technologies

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Thursday, July 28, 2011

Be sure to follow us on Facebook

We should update this blog more, and hopefully will once the project in launched.

But for now, please follow us on Facebook and Twitter.