Baboons, Mesh networks, and Community

At both Village Telco Workshops I had the pleasure of meeting David Carman and Antoine van Gelder, who founded and now administer the Scarborough Wireless User Group (SWUG). Scarborough is located almost on the southern tip of Africa, on the edge of Cape Town, South Africa.

SWUG uses a mesh network to provide Internet access to people in Scarborough, as DSL is largely unavailable. DSL is connected at one edge of the mesh, and is then distributed throughout Scarborough and some neighboring villages. Users buy their own routers and local youth have been trained to flash and install the routers as mesh nodes.

The mesh network also provides connectivity to those who couldn’t otherwise afford it, and to kids whose parents don’t wish to pay for Internet. The result is wider access which promotes greater community participation in local applications.

Subscription payments are voluntary, with paying traffic prioritized over non-paying. This has worked surprisingly well to ensure that everyone gets access and we are able to afford sufficient bandwidth. The accounting system is fully automated (using bank deposit email notifications), so administration is hands-free and anonymous. The accounting system removes what would otherwise be a serious admin burden. It uses pmacct and changes iptables rules on the fly.

David has installed several communication forums (including phpbb, mediawiki, argwatch). Mailman is most effective. Email is the preferred modality for the naive user and mailman works well for the naive moderator. However the kids on the mesh appear to be using Facebook to organise themselves!

SWUG has lead David and Antoine into some interesting projects.

They have written a very cool application called ArgusWatch to track incursions of Baboons into the community! The Baboons have a habit of sneaking into peoples homes and making a big mess. One thing that fascinates me is how “local” this application is. We are used to most web apps having a global audience. Makes me think there must be many very useful, very local applications that could be written to address local community issues.

David has become skilled at real world mesh network issues like Wifi propagation and is a strong contributor to the Village Telco project. Antoine has been very busy building Afrimesh, a GUI for the Village Telco that is now running on the Mesh Potato. Funny how these community projects change the direction of our lives. I started out messing around with Asterisk on a DSP chip in 2005 and some how I now build Mesh Potatoes!

Talking to David got me thinking about mesh networks and community.

Now a community used to be something local, for example I might get together with other parents from my daughters school and work together to get a school crossing installed. Local people with a common interest working together. A social organization with social aims, compared to say a business organisation that has business goals.

Then the Internet came along and widely dispersed people with common interests could be connected. So now we have widely separated people with a common interest working together. A good example ais the Open Hardware projects I have been working on as part of the Free Telephony Project. Individuals from Canada, China, Bulgaria, Australia working together to develop complex telephony hardware designs. Together we built leading edge IP-PBX technology – as good or better than products coming from giant hardware companies. One example is the BlackfinOne – a community built open hardware Linux board, forerunner to the IP04:

Mesh networks close the circle. A mesh network depends on neighbors working together. My Internet comes via my neighbor’s router. There is a dependency that encourages people to work together and help each other (even if only by leaving their router on). So just like the first example we have local people working together, but this time facilitated by Internet technology. SWUG is a social enterprise that outperforms the incumbent Telco in delivery of broadband to the people of Scarborough.

In my travels to East Timor I found an interesting counter-example. East Timor has very little local Internet infrastructure and very little local content. Most of the Internet traffic goes straight up a satellite dish to ISPs in other countries. I found no examples of IP traffic going from a browser to a web server in East Timor – it all left the country as a first step. As you can image the cost of accessing information on the Internet is prohibitive ($5-10/hour where people would be lucky to earn that in a week). I wonder what that does to a community?


Thanks David Carman for checking this post and providing additional details of SWUG.