Baucau Village Telco

Baucau is a major town in Timor Leste, about 3 hours drive east of Dili. In September, something special happened in Baucau. What I call “Second Generation” Mesh Potato training. Alipio Simoes, a Timorese IT guy, trained other Timorese in how to set up a Village Telco. No highly skilled Wifi/VOIP people involved at all. They now have 9 nodes running in Baucau and are asking for more.

Why am I so excited about this? Well, Alipio had never seen a Mesh Potato until a few months ago. He attended a one day training course in April and then worked on a few Mesh Potato installations in Dili. Now he is training other Timorese.

In contrast, many developing world technology projects rely heavily on people from the first world, or highly trained local people with the equivalent of 1st world skills. When the 1st world skill set leaves, the technology starts to unwind. Things start to break, and can’t be fixed. This cycle then repeats itself. It’s really, really hard to set up a sustainable technology project in the developing world.

However Alipio’s training day shows the potential for the Village Telco to go viral. Just feed in potatoes and let local people set up their own community phone networks. In Dili, Lemi Soares has also trained many local people who are installing Mesh Potatoes all over the city.

Put yourself in the shoes of a developing world geeky guy. Imagine you are interested in Wifi or VOIP technology. You have probably never used Linux, have a poor or non-existent Internet connection, modest English skills, and no local user group to help you out. Your power goes off a few times every day. A $70 router is about 2 weeks wages and take 2 months to get to you, if it doesn’t get lost in your countries indifferent postal system. Technology problems can be hard enough to solve when you are in the first world, but imagine doing it from a developing world base.

It costs a lot to put a 1st world guy into the developing world, or to train a local person to a high skill level. Incredible amounts of money compared to local wages and living costs. For me to go to Timor Leste for a week costs US$2,000. That’s if I work for free. That is nearly a years wages for a Timorese IT worker. So “removing the 1st world guy” (or 1st world skill set) is the key to any sustainable technology project in the developing world

Key factors in our win:

  • The use of mesh networking and omnidirectional antennas makes a Village Telco network very easy to set up. You don’t need to know anything about IP routing, and there is no antenna pointing or alignment involved. You just put the Mesh Potato up on a pole, apply power and you are connected to the mesh network.
  • We have put a lot of work into the “ease of use” meme. For example a simple configuration GUI, and the built-in Asterisk dial plan which lets you dial the IP of other Mesh Potatoes straight away (for example dial 21 to reach a MP with IP 10.130.1.21). To configure a Mesh Potato requires that you set just one IP, and you can even do that via the telephone without needing a laptop.

Alipio reports:

We started the workshop at 10:00 am. I started by explaining about the Dili Village Telco. For 30 minute including what organisations are supporting the project an so on and also question and answer about in this session. Dili Village telco I continued with mesh potato introduction.

On this session they were having a chance to do hands on stuff which is putting the mp into the box, connecting them to the power including telephone line and networking the with the computer using command line. Just copy and past from the manual. And it all worked.

They were excited because they could access the MP through a PC. Every one were able to change the last octet of the IP which would become their phone number including the channel that I have chosen which channel 9. And before we went to the lunch time every one were able to call each other within the room and makes calls to the four nodes that I have install a week ago.

BTW I left Alipio’s email largely unedited in the text above. Alipio, like many Timorese, speaks at least 5 languages. First they will have a local dialect, then the national language (Tetum). Most people also speak Indonesian, and Portuguese, and English. Five languages – Wow! I can speak just one and am struggling to learn the basics of two others!

Here are some photos of the training day Alipio organised in Dili. Our man Alipio is on the far right.

After a few months of operation, Alipio has some feedback:

Most of them are all working well I would say 8 are working well and one is working but only at night when other wifi around our place stop.

People are using it for communicate with each other for work purpose. Because most of them are Local NGO.

Among those NGO there is a Community Radio and One of the State Department of Training and Employment. Some NGOs have found that it’s very important to link in to the State Department of Training and employment because the have training program that been support by the department.

People from the ngo says that it would be good for community Radio to have one more MP at the station so that could help people in requesting music that they would like to hear from the community radio.

There are people from community who are working with ngo and government department want to buy MP and they says that if the price goes down to USD50 they would interested in buying their own. And the low income community could afford to buy USD 10-30.

People suggested that good to link to the operator so that can make a phone call to people in other district through MP.

Some interesting ideas from Alipio, e.g. links to mesh Networks in other districts.

Mesh Potato Pricing – how you can help

Alipio’s survey on price points for people in Baucau is also interesting. The Mesh Potato price is a volume game. We can reduce the price as volume builds. If you have a few $100,000 to invest in a worthwhile project helping commission a large Mesh Potato order would really help. This could be structured as a loan, paid back from MP sales. There are a lot of individuals, governments, and NGOs who have a budget, and want to help improve the world. The shortage of good, sustainable development projects is greater than the shortage of money.

Another possibility to boost Mesh Potato volume is some sort of buy one, get one free program. Or a way your purchase could subsidise another Mesh Potato in a developing country. You would get a photo and a thank you showing “your” MP installed in a village and who it is helping.

If you need a VOIP device, consider buying a Mesh Potato – they can be configured as as clients on regular Wifi networks, run OpenWRT, and can be used for many 1st world applications. Your $ then goes to a worthy cause that is aimed at helping a lot of people.

Many of the challenges facing wider deployment of Village Telcos are business, not just technology. For example capital, business models, and distribution. The technology, I suspect, is the easy bit.

4 thoughts on “Baucau Village Telco”

  1. Thanks for the link Robert, Kickstarter is a cool new concept for me. I should point out that personally, I am more interested in working on technical problems of the Village Telco. However there are plenty of interesting business problems (like funding networks in developing countries, distribution, sustainability) that are waiting for the right person to step up and solve them.

  2. I would love to deploy a Village Telco here in Mozambique. I just arrived here in this country from the US just three months ago. I am currently in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique. In a couple of months, I will head to the north, where electricity and internet are a luxury. I have been following this project with great interest since last year in Chicago.

    David, like you said, the problem here has to do with business and scale. Why is it that in some places the cost of electricity are so low? Because of scale. Why do most things (especially electronics) sold in the US tend to be cheaper than most of the countries in Africa? Because of the large amount of products concentrated and distributed there.

    I hope that we can harvest the human power to do good and gather numbers to allow this necessary technology to be affordable in places that need it most.

  3. Your power goes off a few times every day. A $70 router is about 2 weeks wages and take 2 months to get to you, if it doesn’t get lost in your countries indifferent postal system. Technology problems can be hard enough to solve when you are in the first world, but imagine doing it from a developing world base.
    This is so common to me, living in Zambia. Althoug in one of the larger city, we already have this problems. :)

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