Tips for setting up wireless internet where there are few resources

By APCNews     MONTEVIDEO, 27 October 2008

Alex Gondwe is a techie at the Baobab Health Partnership in Malawi. He is setting up internet connections between health institutions to improve patient care and HIV/AIDS data collection.

Wireless technologies offer developing countries a low-cost alternative to existing internet infrastructure and Alex was one of more than a hundred qualified and self-taught technicians, who were trained in wireless as part of APC’s community wireless in Africa project which ran from 2005-6. The project also inspired a Latin American version, TRICALCAR.

“There were some principles that I learned in the APC workshop that have helped me to work in resource-constrained environments,” said Alex Gondwe of the Baobab Health Partnership. APC paraphrases them here.

1. Keep it simple. We have been able to set up wireless links using cheap hardware. We acquired some Cisco bridges which were lying idle after an organisation decided to make changes to the type of hardware that they use on their network. We use these on our longer links.

2. Stable power is a challenge, especially in rural areas. We designed a battery power backup system. When the power on the grid is out, the backup system can sustain the network and all the computers for six hours. The computers we use consume very little power. We have also set up windmills as a source of power for rural areas.

3. Construct free-standing, cheap and reliable steel towers for connections. This has proved to be more cost effective in the long run than having to pay rentals on tall buildings or existing towers.

4. Use GNU/Linux for both servers and workstations. No worries about licenses and anti-viruses. Our workstations do not have hard drives. We install the OS on an on-board chip. We use no mouse or keyboard; they have touch screens which is ideal for our often rural set-ups.

Wireless trainees in Africa are advocates

Alex’s responses were part of a survey that APC carried out last year to find out what the over one hundred community wireless technicians were doing with their training. The survey of trainees showed that:

● 53% have installed one or more wireless networks, 83% of which are non-commercial in nature.
● 58% have trained others.
● More than 50% have passed on training materials.
● Nearly half have provided advice.
● One-third are maintaining or administering a wireless network.
● One in five is now managing a project using wireless technology

Read more about the Latin American TRICALCAR and the community wireless in Africa projects.

Wireless materials were produced in English, French, Arabic and Spanish. All training units are freely available for download on the ItrainOnline website.