Mesh Potatos Become Hot Potatos

News from the conference room: this is a series of blog posts in which blogging experts briefly review key Tech4Africa 2010 talks and panels from Day 1 and 2.

Day 1

The Tech track at Tech4Africa kicked off with a presentation by Steve Song, a Shuttleworth Foundation fellow and a founder of Village Telco project.
His main theme was the high cost of access to basic communications, and the solution developed that can help solve this problem. Which is always a good thing in a solution.
An eye-opening statistic: the bottom 75% income band in Africa spends 50% of their disposable income on mobile services (in SA it’s a touch lower, at 40%, although probably because people earn a bit more here than because our mobile operators are particularly cheap).
If you’re an economist you get to sit back smugly, take a sip of Merlot and say, “See, you see how much they value it? Clearly it delivers the incentive they believe makes it worth the price.” If you’re not an economist you kick them in the head.
If you’re an African leader you wake the hell up, and realise that without driving down the cost of telephone and data access, your people will struggle and struggle to advance (and hence build businesses that pay you tax revenues that leaders can in turn plunder for new presidential palaces, you bastards).
In Steve’s more considered words, “What might an enlightened African leader should say: ‘It’s the cost of access, stupid’.”
His main contention in developing businesses is that to enable innovation, you must lower the cost of failure. When failure is expensive, the lesson learned is to stop wasting money.
With greater communication, more sharing of knowledge and greater transparency across markets comes immediate and marked growth in GDP. A cheaper way to provide telephony services in Africa is vital, and since the mobile operators (and government regulators) are not coming to the party, other options must be found.
His talk then turned to an old Linksys wireless router, the WRT54G. Popular, now getting a little long in the tooth, but based on a Linux core in its firmware. Open Source types compelled Linksys to open up the code under GPL, and they dug in.
They hacked it, and discovered it was a pretty powerful box, with hardware (RAM, CPU, etc) more advanced than its as-shipped specs needed. A whole new industry of hacked WRT54G routers grew up… enthusiasts wrote books about it, codified the OS as OpenWRT.
You can unplug the stub antenna, and add a directional (such as a cheap, home-made cantenna), and talk reliably over many kilometres.
You could hook a bunch together over in a mesh over an area, plug a phone into it, hack it a bit more, and end up with the Mesh Potato.
Mesh, as in the Open Source mesh protocol developed substantially by a woman called Elektra in Germany, POTS as in Plain Old Telephone System (it works with old skool analogue telephone handsets) and an ATA (Analogue Telephone Adapter) to packetise the voice.
Mesh Potato. Get it? It’s cleverer in Spain, where they call them patatas.
The hardware for the box was designed by an Australian hardware engineer called Mr. David Rowe, and then mass produced.
Hacking together some code is easy enough, you may think, but a piece of hardware is an entirely different proposition.
Luckily, not true.
An interesting development, says Song: “Hardware is the new software. You can bring a unique hardware product to market quite quickly and cheaply.”
The Mesh Potato team finalised the design, did some prototypes for testing, then went into production with a manufacturer in China, who was only to happy to give them a good unit price in exchange for the know-how (yay for open source goodness and commodity technology like WiFi and open standards like SIP!).
The final device will be a fairly cute little white box that’s weatherproof (rain, dust and sun) with hardened ports that won’t fry its little heart if some klutz plugs the wrong thing in.
The mesh then connects up a number of standard handsets that can be pulled out the dumpster, allowing a non-profit to set up a local telephone network quickly and exceptionally cheaply.
The little network can be autonomous, or you can add a “server” that’s being developed that has a VoIP connection upstream to a gateway to allow interconnect to national operators.
Song recons they got a 400m range at a setup they ran at the Afrikaburn festival/party/freakshow in the Karoo in the Western Cape a few months back, and with a new version planned using 802.11n, they’re looking for even longer range.
The non-profit part is key, because these organisations can operate a network in many African countries free if they don’t charge. A small business can be set up to be a commercial venture, but then they’d need an ECS class licence (in SA, similar elsewhere).
The box was developed by a team that kicked around ideas and designs across South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda.
Song says they’re so far not getting hostility from the incumbent mobile and landline operators, but probably because they’re flying well under the radar. The tolerance may change when the Mesh Potato starts to become widespread.
It’s an interesting future. In the past the only people with the ability to deliver a viable telephone network would have to do it on a national basis. Deep pockets. Exclusive licences. Monopolies. Price gouging. In incumbent operators’ defence, the price to pay for doing a national network is that it would have to meet minimum standards. Expensive, reliable, standardised technology. Think SS7.
That changes with repurposed commodity technology.
Now a village or area in a township can set up a telephone network that services just them cheaply and easily. If it falls over, they know exactly whose door to go knock on. It does the needed job. It’s cheap. It can be grown, and grown.
Rather like ISPs providing VoIP services to small businesses will eat into national operators, so small consumer meshes will eat into national operators.
Is this the democratisation and commoditisation of telephony? These small potatos?

(NOTE: Blogging for the event is done with little time and bandwidth. Apologies for any factual errors, but c’est la vie).

By Roger Hislop