Baucau Village Telco Part 2

We are back in Timor Leste, on our final visit for the Dili Village Telco project. Peter and Nick from Atcom have joined us, as they are interested in seeing a live Village Telco network in day-day operation. Atcom are the company who are manufacturing the Mesh Potato, and have been very generous in arranging manufacture of a special batch of Mesh Potatoes for the Dili Village Telco project.

Our hosts are Lemi Soares and Alipio Simoes, who are leading the Timorese side of the project. It’s these guys and their teams who have been doing all the MP installation and debugging work here in Timor Leste.

Driving To Baucau

Our first destination was the regional town of Baucau, about 120km east of Dili. Six of us piled into Lemi’s car for the 4 hour trip. Four hours to cover just 120km is hard to imagine if you have never been to a developing country. Here is what it is like: accelerate to 40 km/hr for 100m, hit the brakes due to a pot hole, bump over the hole at walking pace, then repeat. Inside the car it’s about 35C and 100% humidity. For most of the trip I shared the single front seat with Rosemary, as I was feeling car sick in the back. The road is narrow so before every bend you beep your horn to warn any oncoming traffic. Other vehicles include motorbikes, huge trucks, and small buses with people hanging out the doors and sitting on roofs (they pay half price).

The trip winds its way along mountains next to the sea, up and down hills, over crocodile infested rivers, through jungle, and many small villages. Shops constructed from bamboo, wood and palm leaf along the road sell water, cokes, and fish straight out the ocean. Smiling local children run out, wave and shout “Mal-eye” (foreigner) as we pass.

I really enjoy this sort of trip. So much more interesting than driving in a 1st world country.

Evaluating the Baucau Village Telco

Anyway, to work. Alipio has set up a 10 node Village Telco network in Baucau that is working out very well. His nodes are spread over a 500m circle down a gently sloping hill with supernode at one end. Alipio has installed a MP01 on a broadcast radio mast that acts as a relay for many of the surrounding nodes. Internet is rare in Baucau so there is very little other Wifi traffic to interfere with the Village Telco nodes. We tried a few phone calls from various nodes and they all sounded great, as good or better than a GSM call.

Alipio has installed the nodes at various NGOs. NGOs do a lot of work with each other. A common pattern is they tend to call the same site several times every day. However until now thay had to use GSM to make calls even to sites a few 100m away. This is a serious problem in Timor Leste – a GSM call costs 26 cents/minute in a country where people earn $1.50/day.

It’s a tax on the human right to communicate.

Peter took the lead is talking to Village Telco “customers” in Baucau. A good example was Joao Do Carmo Pinto, who runs the CDC, an NGO that helps people develop businesses around local skills and produce. For example small businesses canning or preserving local fish and fruit.

When asked about the Village Telco Joao said, “It works really well, as long as the power is on it is 100% reliable. My GSM phone bill has dropped. I would love to see this deployed all over Baucau and would be happy to help promote it”. When asked how we could improve the Mesh Potato, “Multiple phones at the one site, for example one in each room”.

Here is Joao answering a call:

And the Baucau Village Telco phone book:

Needed: some way to list all phone numbers in a Village Telco network would be quite useful, perhaps driven by a list of nodes from the Batman Visualisation server.

All of the end users in Baucau mentioned power problems. For example people at the radio station turn the power off when they go on holidays (merely through habit), which drops out an important node in our network. There are also unscheduled blackouts that happen every day in Baucau. This can drop out part or all of the mesh, especially if critical nodes are powered down. This is not very common in the developed world, but here work (e.g. anything using a computer, lighting, or a machine) just stops several times a day when the power goes down.

A UPS or battery backup for MPs would be very useful. It doesn’t have to be full solar power, just a small inexpensive battery to allow the Mesh Potatoes to ride over blackouts for a few hours. A little voltage sensing hardware in the MP could alert the manager of the Village Telco network that the AC power has been cut.

Low Cost GSM Handsets

The Village Telco is designed to work around expensive GSM calls using unlicensed Wifi technology. So it’s useful to look at the state of the GSM art. Here is Alipios GSM handset:

It retails here in Timor Leste for just US$15. At Christmas they were on special at three for $10! Of course these handsets are subsidised by the local Telco, with the expectation of extracting a few $ from the poorest people in Asia. I would guess it probably costs about $15 to make. It is amazing what mass production of electronics can do – a complex radio device, when made in the millions, on sale for $15. When combined with something like OpenBTS the possibilities for free telephony are breathtaking.

GSM technology is pretty cool, however it attracts some very ugly business models. In some countries it’s an excellent way to extract money from those who can least afford it.

Conclusions

The reasons for expanding the Dili Village Telco project to Baucau were (1) to test a deployment totally managed by local Timorese and (2) test performance in an environment free of Wifi interference. Both goals have been met or exceeded. As a bonus the end users love it and we have proven a central premise of the Villlage Telco – people are hungry for affordable telephony.

I am particularly excited that Alipio and his team set up the entire network with zero assistance from any Westerners or 1st world people. This is the Village Telco “ease of use” meme at it’s best, and the key to viral growth of the Village Telco. Given a little more funding, Alipio would love to greatly expanded the Baucau Village Telco. In particular, Alipio is keen to connect to the local PSTN network as a way of funding ongoing operation.

Top marks Alipio for the Baucau Village Telco project. From left to right here is Alipio, Nick, Peter, and Lemi:

Back To Dili

After a few hours visiting nodes and talking to end users we stopped for a nice $1 coffee at the lovely pink Pousada De Baucau Hotel. Thus fortified, the imperturbable Lemi drove us back to Dili at 5pm.

Links

  1. Alipio kicks off the Baucau Village Telco project.
  2. Atcom, who have done a fantastic job at supporting the Village Telco.
  3. The Dili Village Teclo has been kindly supported by ISIF and ISOC grants
  4. Alipio’s day job is at Info Timor who do a fine job of distributing recycled PCs running Ubuntu Linux to the people of Timor Leste.