If you dont like the network, make your own!

Well, i am paraphrasing Jim Forster’s line which in its entirety reads, “If you don’t like the network you have, go out and make your own“. This was one of my favorite quotables at TEDGlobal in Arusha.

Jim Forster is the distinguished engineer at Cisco, the veritable maker of routers and switches that form the backbone of the internet, amongst other products and services. He is also one of the contributors to the invaluable free resource “Wireless Networking in the Developing World” – An in depth guide to planning and building low cost telecom infrastructure.

In his 3 minute presentation at TEDGlobal he talked about the current state of telecom, likening it to a railroad system where everyone is a customer but it doesn’t reach all the areas ‘last mile’ as it were. The model that we should be considering is one that is composed of many private networks, similar to the model of the internet, or a ‘network of networks’. We need to encourage our governments to support the idea of many networks that are run either privately or as businesses providing network access to others. Please click on the graphic below to download the presentation that he has made available.
Presentation at TEDglobal

There is also more information available on the site Network The World.

While on the topic of wireless networks, Riyaz of skunkworks pointed me to Meraki’s june announcement of the first solar powered outdoor wifi access kit.

Priced at just $99, Meraki Outdoor can send a signal up to 700 feet. Paired with Merakiâ??s existing indoor $49 Mini, the Meraki Outdoor repeater can power access for dozens of households sharing one high speed connection. Meraki Outdoor can be easily installed on a wall or even a pole outside the house. It marks another step forward in Merakiâ??s efforts to change the economics of Wi-Fi access, driving the cost per household of high speed connections to $1 to $2 a month.

Adding the Meraki Solar accessory kit will allow the repeater to broadcast a signal without being connected to any electrical source, making it an ideal solution for any community, even emerging markets where electricity is scant or unreliable.

The skunkworks crew and other wireless networking experts, you are very welcome to comment on whether you see any private networks being set up in Nairobi or other parts of Africa that utilize the ideas alluded to above. Meanwhile…no whining!

The Network
Image from the internet superstar – Hugh Mcleod.

**Tangential Digression – Weird Cell behavior on the border.

On crossing the border from Tanzania into Kenya and vice versa, i got the following text message on my safaricom line…from Celtel. It stated “Welcome to Kenya & thank you for choosing Celtel.International access code is 000 or +.The tourist help line is +254733617499.Celtel. Making life better.”. Worrisome to say the least. Is celtel just broadcasting a signal to all and sundry? How did they get the safaricom number? What expectation of privacy should safaricom customers have? I later found out that everyone gets that sms whether they are on a celtel line or safaricom. I mentioned it to Mr. Forster and he pointed out that some networks do play nice and share infrastructure even base stations. Its quite curious…Do chime in if you’ve experienced something similar, even weirder, or if you can shed light on how and why this occurs. Does the same thing happen on crossing into Uganda?

11 thoughts on “If you dont like the network, make your own!

  1. Thanks for getting that presentation from Jim. I kept trying to take pictures of the slides at the end, I thought they were fascinating, this is a lot easier for me to parse.

    So, the question is – how feasible is it to build out a “private grid” or network in Africa? Is it something that individuals should do, or small business… or both?

    Are we discussing something similar to Fon?

  2. I think its both. I am looking forward to Maitha’s (http://bangaiza.kylix.co.ke/) thoughts on this..he is the networking guru in kenya.

    As for FON movimiento it offers a great model, since it is able to monetize the networks and generate $ for the people who set them up. Hmmm hadn’t thought of Fon. similar i think. Btw, i did get their free router but the connection kept on hanging, I gave it away.

  3. Pingback: African Blog Links of Interest | White African

  4. hehehe ….. bado sijafikia awamu za kuitwa guru wa networking nchini kuna magwiji wakubwa kuniliko dada , will have a go at it and let you in on my thoughts

  5. when i arrived in tanzania and uganda last month I received welcome messages from safaricom remining me that i could use my phone in these countries kama kawaida i.e as usual, as if I was still in Kenya. Also, in both countries, I received text messages (one each in Kampala and Arusha) from some 3rd party company (messages now deleted) inviting me to call /text them and get some extra mobile services – I didn’t get in touch with them as they could have been premium rate companies

  6. maitha – looking forward to it!

    Bankelele – interesting! Yeah unsolicited upselling it could have been… surprisingly i wasn’t too worried about privacy (more about the technical ‘how do they do it’. still wondering…)

  7. In the US, when driving from one time zone to another, cell phones automatically update the time. I’m guessing it’s transfer from one tower to another. Maybe some kind of script can be executed at the same time? Just guessing.

  8. wondering where to start here … 🙂

    1. The “build your own network” phenomenon is exactly what we’ve seen in the local universities – students building their own dorm LANs to hook up self-owned computers in their rooms. Coz the administration networks never get to the stage of the dorms. Melvin presented the JKUAT setup during BarCamp.
    http://skunkworks-ke.blogspot.com/2007/03/post-barcamp-nairobi-kenya-31st-march.html

    2. In my personal opinion – doing estates, apartment blocks etc is very easy. And a good business model too (see the section also on residential networks we covered at BarCamp – pity we’ve not pushed it further). The technology exists (mesh WiFi like FON is great for this, or just simple cabling).
    The problem comes about in scaling up this network to the city or metro scale – and that’s hard to manage technically, as well as commercially (for a small entity). ie the part about linking all these community networks together.
    The technology has limitations – mesh WiFi doesn’t work on a metro scale as proven all over the world … you’re looking at fiber, or more dedicated pipes.

    3. Much of Kenya’s topology makes it not so favorable for larger community networks – we have estates where houses are close to each other – these are perfect for FON-type networks. But then each estate is far away from the other (more than 200m) and this makes it a challenge. Also, the individual compounds with big trees are almost impossible to cover.
    However, suitable areas are places like BuruBuru, Eastleigh, Parklands to an extent, and CBD.

    4. So – if many private companies decided to build their own & link them together ? Perfect. But in the past, this has just ended up creating a horribly fragmented market where everyone targets the same regions. So you get 10 networks in the same place – and they just kill each other. That’s why the smaller estate idea in point 2 works better. Then what you do is have a larger metro ISP or municipality providing the “backbone”.
    Bits of this is actually happening in Mombasa … I know several individuals offering cheap 5,000 internet access held together by “strings”. But it’s very frustrating internet 🙂

    5. I’ve never thought about the issue of licensing for such networks – from BarCamp – one might need to get a CCK license for something like a WiFi access-point for your neighbourhood ?

    6. The txt messages is quite common … but how it works is again a loong explanation 🙂

  9. Riyaz,

    A couple comments on your comments:

    2. Yes, larger networks require more organization than smaller nets, and usually benefit from a commercial structure or at least a formal co-op. Backbones Networks are important and require more planning, finance, maintenance, contracts for use, etc., but usally Access Networks are a large share of the total cost of networks, so lowering their cost is criticial. (We’ll save the African International bandwidth pricing issues for another time 🙂

    3. Yes, in the situations you describe you could use one technology within the housing estate (such as wires or mesh wifi), and then a slightly different technology to connect the estate to the nearest backbone (point to point WiFi with bigger antennae, maybe WiMax, maybe fiber if you’re incredibly lucky or a University campus, or maybe Cellular EvDO/3G/HSPDA — whatever works.

  10. Oh, I should add one more bit: my line â??If you donâ??t like the network you have, go out and make your ownâ?? is kind of a riff on a tag line by a San Francisco area radio news person from the counter-cultural 60’s and 70’s named Scoop Nisker. He always ended his news reports saying “This is Scoop Nisker reminding you: if you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own”. We should be makig news too!

    — Jim

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