Australian Potato network feeds Dili's communication needs

Millions of people in developing countries could receive access to free or low-cost telephony services thanks to a new locally-developed wireless mesh network.

The Mesh Potato Wi-Fi network is the fruit of philanthropy by global technologists, including hardware engineers in South Australia, network experts in Berlin and about 30 contributors located across the world.

A beta network of 100 telephone nodes will roll out in Dili, East Timor, to provide residents with cheap or free phone and Internet access. The project came about thanks to a $40,000 grant by the Information Society Innovation Fund (ISIF), which includes the Asia Pacific Network Information Centre, the Internet Society and Canadian and Asian counterparts.

Lead hardware developer and electrical engineer, Dr David Rowe, said the project aims to provide affordable telephony to the developing world.

“There are 3 billion mobiles, but they are expensive to use. Some people in Africa spend half of their disposable income on telephone calls… [and] some governments prioritise communication in front of clean water,” Rowe said.

“The beta test in Dili has a great deal of potential. The people there have to use satellite to make a call a kilometre away and the limited DSL is very expensive — we will try to push the envelope a little and experiment with voice and data.

“We hope to form a social non-profit business to develop enough revenue to sustain the technology, operated along regular business lines… we have some VCs knocking at the door,” he said.

The mesh network operates on unlicensed Wi-Fi spectrum and amplifies and extends signals using connected nodes, or ‘potatos’. It is primarily geared to carry voice, but will also allow data access.

“If a child has a small laptop, they can connect to an access point and jump on the Internet,” Rowe said.

A team of five Australian engineers designed the custom hardware to be rugged and fault-tolerant, as they found off-the-shelf devices to be too fragile.

“It is very easy to setup. You can enter your IP address using the telephone number pad [and] it takes very little power to run,” he said.

The service will also give someone — “the local techie” — in the town the paid job of linking phone calls into the local telephone network.

“Its designed to be low-cost and sustainable. We’ve put a lot of research into how it should operate,” Rowe said.

The project began in South Africa about 18 months ago, thanks to sponsorship by Mark Shuttleworth, who founded the Ubuntu Foundation, and is now has test networks in Adelaide, Berlin and across South America.

Technical problems are answered immediately thanks to the global network of experts, and hundreds of unknown volunteers who give their time to help “at a moment’s notice”.

The devices had to overcome traps such as irregular, ‘dirty’ power, operator error, and environmental stresses such as static, heat and humidity. Unfamiliar users can be rough with delicate parts, so the team built the hardware to be tough to avoid expensive shipping costs of replacements.

“The experience from users, including Linux and Wi-Fi gurus, is invaluable,” Rowe said.

The ‘Village Telco’ Dili project is expected to complete beta testing in the next few months and will expand as volume increase.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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