[This article first appeared in April 2018 on now-defunct ammbrtech website]
Dr Musab Isah Mafara
Located in the south peninsula of Cape Town, South Africa, in the protective lee of mountain peaks, lies the sprawling small town of Ocean View. The town is very close to the Cape Point, a place that marks the meeting point of the warm waters of Indian Ocean from the East and the cold Atlantic Ocean from the West. The actual meeting point of these oceans is contentious though, as the locals of Cape Agulhas, some 100km to the east of Cape Point, also claim the ownership of this geographical treasure. Regardless, the meeting of the opposite water currents at Cape Point is often in a cataclysmic confrontation, further evidence of where the ‘actual’ meeting place is, the first group would counter.
The scenery and the natural beauty of the coastal areas by the road leading to Ocean View from Cape Town were quite spectacular as the car, driven by my host David, manoeuvred the mountain roads on our way to attend a meeting with some members of the community working to bring Internet connectivity to the area. A cheaper means of accessing the Internet, especially in the relatively poor community, is vital in a country with a very high cost of broadband Internet. We powered the first mesh node mounted earlier, upon reaching the meeting venue at Ocean View Secondary School, heralding the beginning of one of the first community networks in a township in Cape Town, hopefully the start of many more across the Western Cape province.
My plan to visit Cape Town started in January 2018 at an AmmbrTech stakeholders conference held in Belgium, after meeting Dr David Johnson, a senior lecturer at the University of Cape Town. At a breakfast table meeting with Dr Arjuna Sathiaseelan (the head of my research group at the University of Cambridge) in a hotel in Genval, near Brussels, David invited me to come to Cape Town to understudy the mesh network deployment they were working on in Ocean View. There was also the opportunity to join his Master’s and PhD students for TV white spaces (TVWS) measurement in the wild and also to interact with them to explore avenues for research collaborations and discussions.
For me, it was a welcomed opportunity of seeing real deployments of mesh technology in community networks as well as the chance to learn about TVWS for someone who was not familiar with these areas of networking. Furthermore, as a somewhat economic rival nation to my country Nigeria, South Africa (SA) had been a country in the continent that I always wanted to visit – to meet the people that keep us on our toes and a country that often wins the economic race in Africa. SA is often on the front burner in Nigeria as a result of the success of some of its companies, especially the Telco giant MTN and the cable TV company DSTV, as well as for other not-so-encouraging reasons. When I arrived, I knew very little about the enchanting beauty of the city of Cape Town and most of my reading before I travelled was about the local Xhosa people, politics and racial tensions, how to stay away from trouble spots, the water shortage and the approaching Day Zero, when it could become the first major city in the world to see its taps run dry.
I spent a week visiting family and friends in Sokoto (Nigeria) after arriving from London, before setting out for Cape Town via Abuja. I arrived the breezy Cape Town International Airport in the first week of March and was welcomed from the passenger boarding bridge by many signs of the acute water crisis facing the city. The signs were everywhere in the airport and made an immediate impact on me, as I tried to minimise my water usage throughout my stay in the city. I catched an Uber to my University accommodation, the All-Africa House, located in the middle-campus of the University of Cape Town (UCT), some 20 minutes’ drive from the airport. My first observation upon arrival at the accommodation was the availability of Internet via eduroam, an International Wi-Fi Internet roaming service for users in research, higher education, and further education across the globe. In layman’s terms, eduroam allows students and staff to access eduroam Wi-Fi Internet in institutions other than their own as soon as the visited wireless networks seamlessly authenticates the visitor’s credentials with the visitor’s home institution. While the service is commonplace across higher institutions in the world, it is not the case in many African countries.
The next morning, I walked up the hill via hundreds of staircases to the Computer Science building located in the upper-campus of UCT. The picturesque view when approaching the university from the East was a stunning beauty. The magnificent buildings of the campus, along with Devil’s Peak and Table Mountain merging with the clouds in the background, was a sight to behold. After a meeting with David and his students and even participating in some rooftop antenna installations in the campus for TVWS measurement, we decided on the agenda for my two weeks stay. It included some work on integrating LEDE/OpenWrt packages on a router board that could potentially be used for building AmmbrTech routers. The target was to cross-compile an existing firmware implementation that allows the integration of different mesh routing protocols on a single platform and thereby simplifying the formation and management of community networks.
I was also billed to present a seminar on mesh Linux containers (MLC – an emulation platform for mesh networks), to participate in an antenna technology workshop, and to visit the Karoo, a semi-desert area of SA some 700km away, for TVWS measurements in the wild. Whilst I was able to give the seminar talk in my second week and had an hour participation in the antenna course, the trip to Karoo could not be held for logistical reasons. Other attempts to carry out measurements within the campus were also hampered by rain denying me the opportunity to explore the TVWS technology. The work of integrating OpenWrt into the board continued throughout my stay and I brought the board back to Cambridge for the work to continue.
My visit to the Ocean View was on day four of my trip. We met at the computer lab of the secondary school with some members of the school staff, a researcher on community development from the UCT, Mathilda Nel of AmmbrTech, and some Internet advocates from the area. David was spearheading the formation of the community network called iNethi in Ocean View and, as the technical lead, he had already installed a server that could be used to store resources meant for local consumption. A UCT student was improving the system by building a single sign-on platform to be used for access control on the network. The visit to the Ocean View formed the highlight of my eventful and beneficial trip to SA and the discussions during the two-hour meeting demonstrated how strong a community could be if a number of dedicated people decided to do something about a difficulty facing their locality. As David stated during the meeting, “technology should amplify our intentions”, and the community’s drive towards achieving a prosperous society was surely being pursued with the use of technology.
Community networks are meant to provide a free or affordable means of accessing local online services and contents as well as the internet through the use of mesh technology. These networks are known to have profoundly improved the wellbeing of people in Nepal (read about the Nepal Wireless Networking Project) and many other places in the world. Mesh networking is achieved through the use of cheap and low-energy technology where roof-mounted antennas from different homes propagate each other’s traffic until the data gets to its local destination or to/from the Internet via a designated router. A household will usually bear the cost of the antenna and the access point connected to it, which is used to provide the Wi-Fi connectivity to the users at home. Routing of packets between the antennas and to the Internet could be metered and charged via a peer-payment system using crypto-currency tokens or other agreeable means. Both Mathilda and David spoke about how AmmbrTech routers could fit in the community network envisioned for the area.
The community in Ocean View had decided to adopt the Zenzeleni model – a successful community network in the Eastern Cape village of Mankosi – for their network and, despite the many challenges going forward, the doggedness of the people involved will, in time, bring a network that connects Ocean View residents with each other on a whole new level, and similarly with the rest of the world. Part of the plan is to set up hotspot locations in public places in the community, such as religious centres, where people can go and have free or affordable access to the online services, if they cannot afford a router at home. There’s little doubt that community networks are the way to connect the many disconnected African communities and I implore NGOs, local communities, governments, charity groups, and advocates to consider the deployment of these networks as a means of empowering poorer regions across the continent and beyond.