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.

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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....