20 February 2006
“I can’t believe I’m surfing the net from my own home,” Agnes Mdluli’s teenage daughter exclaimed shortly after a tin can and a bicycle spoke connected their computer to the internet.
The can-antenna, dubbed the “cantenna”, is made from a metal can, such as a coffee tin, and a section of bicycle spoke soldered into a special connector which can connect to another point with a similar antenna up to five kilometres away.
“We’re excited about this,” says David Johnson, research leader at the Meraka Institute, a new body set up to boost social and economic growth through training, research and development in information and communications technology.
“We’re excited for the community. Imagine the difference this will make in terms of accessing information and gaining knowledge.”
Internet research and VoIP
Mduli’s house in Peebles Valley near White River in Mpumalanga was the site of the first cantenna installation in July 2005.
Peebles Valley, also known as the Masoyi tribal area, is a poor community of some 220 000 people where it is estimated that up to 33% of the sexually active population is HIV-positive.
Mdluli was given priority on the premise that she works at the Aids care training and support clinic in Peebles Valley. The clinic cares mostly for HIV/Aids patients from that area and surrounding villages and townships.
The cantenna will allow Mdluli to do internet-based research on HIV/Aids and other health matters. She will also be able to make Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) calls to health workers across the country.
Cantennas – small, self-constructed antennas made from locally available material – are connected to a low-cost WiFi card plugged into a computer. A small wireless router is placed in a weatherproof casing on a pole to which several community members can connect to form a community mesh network.
The mesh networking technology allows the wireless installations to automatically configure themselves to find the optimal routes through the network, and very little configuration is needed to set them up.
The technology has also enabled the local high school, which uses a more costly omni-direction antenna, to gain internet access through its computer centre.
Training will also be carried out to teach the community how to construct their own cantennas, set up wireless routers and connect them to computers.
First Mile, First Inch
The cantenna project in Peebles Valley is one of 10 sub-projects in the Meraka Institute’s First Mile, First Inch network of projects, set up to explore the technological and social consequences of low-cost telecommunications implemented in remote schools, clinics, and telecentres.
According to the International Development Research Centre, which is funding First Mile, First Inch, the end point of telecommunications distribution networks – often referred to as the “last mile” – is usually the most expensive and difficult mile to deploy and manage in rural areas.
First Mile, First Inch is thus attempting a paradigm shift towards user-centered “first mile” (the starting point of a network) and “first inch” (the immediate experience of the end user) solutions.
Project leaders seek to demonstrate how the “first mile” in poorly served rural communities – the gap between a PC and established telecoms infrastructure – can be bridged using technologies such as WiFi, wired Ethernet, powerline technologies or Bluetooth.
To allow users to interact with their computers – to get past the “first inch” – the project aims to develop open source, easy-to-use applications in local languages.
The key goal is sustainability: helping local communities build their own neighbourhood networks and cultivate the skills required to manage and ultimately replicate these networks elsewhere.