Open-source Wi-Fi links remote communities

A group called Informal is going on a global roadshow to demonstrate the benefits of wireless networks to rural communities in Asia and Africa

European wireless and open-source specialists have embarked on an international tour to spread the benefits of the technology to developing countries from Tajikistan to Ghana.

The team, known as Informal, claims its wireless roadshow is an attempt to empower non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the developing world to own, operate and grow their own Internet infrastructure using wireless technology such as mesh networking. The aim is to allow remote communities in developing countries without traditional telecoms infrastructure to communicate more effectively.

"We support these kinds of activities because we believe that the benefits of the Internet should be available globally," said Informal lead team member Simon Crab.

While a lot of attention has been focused on bridging the digital divide and providing Internet access to remote areas, Informal claims to be more concerned with allowing local communities to exchange information with each other -- spreading local knowledge. "In each country, we will work primarily with local NGOs to assist them in building, maintaining and extending their own networks in areas that are under-served by telecommunication infrastructure," said Crab.

The Informal team recently arrived in Tajikistan where it will remain for next three months before moving onto Ghana, Nepal, the Philippines, China and finally India.

Existing examples of wireless technology projects in the developing world include DakNet and First Mile Solutions in Cambodia and the Jhai Foundation's Remote IT Village Project in Laos.

Informal plans to use emerging wireless mesh technology to create cheap, robust connections in remote areas that do not have an established telecoms infrastructure. Each device on a mesh network receives and transmits its own traffic, while acting as a router for other devices; intelligence in each device allows it to automatically configure an efficient network, and to adjust if, for example, a node becomes overloaded or unavailable. The advantages include ease of set-up, the ability to spread wireless access over a wide area from a single central wired connection, and the inherent toughness of such networks.

Key to the Informal project is the development of a blueprint for a low-cost, wireless, rugged computing device which Informal will encourage the NGOs to develop and build. The so-called Autonokit will essentially be a low-cost computer that can work on non-standard power sources such as solar, wind, micro-hydro or even bicycle power.

The Autonokit will run an open-source Linux or BSD distribution optimised for networking and auto configuration. It will be equipped with a 12V battery in case of power cuts, low wind or a fuel shortage.

In an article written for CNET, UN secretary-general Kofi Annan spelled out the potential benefits that wireless and other technologies could bring to the developing world.

"We need to think of ways to bring wireless fidelity (Wi-Fi) applications to the developing world, so as to make use of unlicensed radio spectrum to deliver cheap and fast Internet access," he said.

While providing developing communities with access to information is one of the main motivations behind the road-show, Crab -- whose day job is at digital consultancy Lateral -- claims Informal's motivations are not purely altruistic. "A side effect of these projects is that it keeps us in touch with technical and creative developments in areas most companies don't look at, it keeps our roots in the real world," he said.

Crab admitted that providing open access to information in some countries could be politically sensitive but he claimed that there is a lot of misleading information circulated about some countries approach controlling Internet access. "You have to be very careful about how you approach it but there are a lot of myths about countries such as China -- they actually have very free access compared to some places," he said.

China has been heavily criticised by organisations such as Amnesty International for its attempts to censor Internet traffic and imprisoning several individuals for Internet-related crimes.