Dili Village Telco Part 7

Tuesday, and my last full day in Timor Leste before jetting out tomorrow. I just went for a 0630 morning walk through the suburb where I am staying (Delta 2). It’s (almost) cool, but the heat and humidity builds quickly.

A morning walk is a habit of mine where ever I go, e.g. in South Africa, or Germany, or Sweden. OK, so maybe not Sweden, it was -10C in the morning when I was there in March. I find it fascinating to observe how people live in different countries. For example what their homes look like, what their day is like. The day-day life interests me much more than the tourist attractions.

You see little shops opening for the day. Every 10th house has a small shop selling water, soft drinks, or food like fresh bread rolls. People were sweeping the front of their homes, although to me it looked like they were just moving dust from one side to the other. Kids playing and semi-domesticated dogs digging through garbage heaps. The dogs scare me, you never know what they are carrying. Every mosquito here is a potential carrier of Malaria or Denge fever. So it’s mosquito nets at night and lots of insect repellent. Most people I pass on the street look at me suspiciously: the Timorese have had a bad time with foreigners for the last 400 years. Our lives and cultures are worlds apart, a gap difficult to bridge even if you speak Tetum.

The last few days have been a bit slow on the technical side, we are all a bit worn out after 9 days straight. We have been doing some training and exercises, and plugging away at improving the mesh links. They guys here are very keen to improve their Linux skills, so we spend a lot of time on command line tasks and installing software. However I feel satisfied that the Fongtil guys know how to set up a good link and can work through the problems. They are determined and motivated.

Little things can be show stoppers here. For example Lemi wanted to install Smokeping as an exercise but without bandwidth apt-get can’t be used to install Ubuntu packages. So a local repository was required which means another few hours to set up.

When manually entering this script on a Mesh Potato:
#!/bin/sh /etc/rc.common
# Copyright (C) 2008 OpenWrt.org

start() {
[ -f /etc/udhcpd.conf ] && udhcpd

An extra whitespace line was accidentally added at the top of this script, so the script wouldn’t run. How do you debug that if you don’t have experience with shell scripts? No one around here who can help you. These sorts of problems can bring geeky activity to a screeching halt in the developing world.

I had a very pleasant afternoon yesterday with Anders Hofstee from Catalpa International, and Australian non-profit in the Ermera District of Timor-Leste. Ermera is about 3 hours drive from Dili (which might mean 30km-50km here on the Timorese country roads). Anders arrived in an old ambulance, as his primary role is health care. However he has also been setting up an 8 node mesh network using Ubiquity hardware flashed with open-mesh firmware. Living in the country, he has nice hills to use instead of masts and no interference! The network is used for local data, for example sites 5km away to Ander’s custom medical database.

On a typical day Anders might suture a nasty machete wound, transport a body in his hearse, hack some database code, and tweak his mesh network.

Local data is the killer service for the Ermera mesh network. The ability to send a written blood test report over a 5km line of site path makes an incredible difference. The alternative is a 1 hour drive (each way) to pick up the same report. After the 1 hour drive you may find the person you are meeting hasn’t showed up, as there is no other way to communicate with the courier. So two hours wasted for nothing.

The current alternative to a data network is police reading documents out into VHF radios, line by line, where they are transcribed at the other end. If you have a medical emergency and need to break into the radio net, you better hope the police pause long enough!

Likewise, local phone calls are the killer application here (just like Dili). Anders is very keen to try the Mesh Potato out in Ermera, in particular for communications between services like the police, local government, ambulance. He made a very good point, “When you call a service, you don’t care who you reach”. So one Mesh Potato per police station is fine, you don’t need one per policeman like a mobile phone or VHF radio.

I am keen to try MPs in areas without interference and good LOS paths so I will get a few MPs to Anders as part of the Dili Village Telco project. He had just downloaded Afrimesh and was keen to try it out. One thing he liked about the Village Telco was stand alone operation. For example if you turn on two Mesh Potatoes they just start talking, no server or Internet connection is required. The open-mesh system requires some sort of contact with the “Supernode” or the node won’t come up.

It was also cool to introduce Anders to Lemi and the Fongtil guys, as well as the Info Timor guys. So I think that’s all of the Timorese mesh networking guys “connected” (pardon unintended) now!

Batman over Ethernet

With Elektra’s kind support over the Village Telco mailing list we managed to get a reliable link from the Fongtil tower to the training room inside the building. On the Supernode and a MP inside we configured batman to work over Ethernet. This effectively piped the mesh network down the Ethernet cable into the training room where it was re-broadcast. Nice trick, but the geek factor to required to get this working was high. So now we have good ping results from inside the training room to other nodes on our pilot network.

Over the next few weeks the Fongtil guys will attempt to expand the network from the Blind Society end. Key question is how interference prone the additional links will be. Luckily our sites are closer together at that end. Lemi plans to install Mesh Potatoes at a variety of NGOs so they can have free phone calls between each other. This is a very worthwhile application as currently GSM phone calls must be carefully timed and kept very short due to the high cost.

For me, it’s back to the land of low humidity, bandwidth and push bikes rather scooters! I’ll be back in East Timor in July.


Dili Village Telco Project Wiki
Dili Village Telco Part 1
Dili Village Telco Part 2
Dili Village Telco Part 3
Dili Village Telco Part 4
Dili Village Telco Part 5
Dili Village Telco Part 6

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