Building human networks without wires: First community wireless workshop in East Africa
By Anna Feldman
MTONI, ZANZIBAR, 13 April 2005
Anna Feldman has just returned from a training workshop on Zanzibar in East Africa, as part of the APC’s “Community Wireless Connectivity” project supported by the IDRC and OSI.
It seemed a shame to dismantle the wireless set-up that took as a week to perfect in Mtoni, Zanzibar, but that was just the beginning of the real networking.
As one participant said, “one big network was formed from the first day we met, and that was a human network”. Ashraf Mohammed from Zanzibar’s Linux Users’ Group came away from the five-day training with a commitment to staying in touch with the other trainees, keeping them all up-to-date with his progress in connecting local communities to the internet.
There were 35 people on the course from Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Sudan and Nigeria, drawn from a range of community ICT projects, engineering and computing faculties of universities and colleges, and NGOs engaged in information technology work. And like Ashraf they are all hoping to set-up wireless networks in their communities and work places. They will support each other through online collaboration, seeking and offering advice.
In most cases internet access relies on the availability of a reliable fixed telephone line and that can be a struggle to find in many parts of rural Africa. Wireless technology, which is based on using radio waves to carry data, can by-pass the fixed-line problem.
It is hoped that wireless networking can provide some of the benefits to internet access that mobile phone technology gave to telephone access in Africa.
The idea of community wireless networking takes this a stage further, for the cost and accessibility of wireless technologies also offer communities an unusually inclusive role in their electronic networks.
APC’s project partner, Onno Purbo, a community wireless expert from Indonesia, describes the opportunity this way.
He sees the traditional telecommunications model as having internet access ‘licensed by the government, invested in by the investors, run by the operators, for the people’. Whilst wireless technologies provide a new community ICT infrastructure model, where everything is community-based and access is ‘From the people, by the people, for the people.’
And so this workshop was all about sharing knowledge and experiences in setting up and maintaining networks. It was a hands-on training designed to support technical skills sharing in community wireless networking.
The participants learned how to configure access points, climb towers safely, calculate radio links, survey their sites, source appropriate equipment, budget for projects, and secure their networks.
They were able to build antennas out of recycled tin cans, and later use them to wirelessly connect Grave island – an atol two kilometres across the sea from the workshop venue.
Building the link was the culmination of the workshop, and tested the group in all aspects of their training. It was a particularly exciting moment when the voices of the mobile unit at sea came through clearly to the rest of the group at the base station in Mtoni – carried by radio waves using wireless technologies.
The East African workshop was the first in a series of four regional workshops for Africa. In twelve months time we will have established a base of wireless expertise across the continent – community networkers with access to materials in English, French and Arabic, able to share their skills with members of their communities, bringing access to ICTs and control of that access, all the way home.
And with plans now started for Spanish training in the Latin American region, we hope to be reporting soon on similar progress there.
Photo: The Zanzibar trainees and trainers