Afrimesh, Simple & Easy setup of wireless mesh networks for rural Africa

2009 March 3

One of the fundamental issues with connectivity in Africa, is the lack of fiber or copper cables in rural areas where a large portion of the population live. The mobile operators have stepped up to the challenge with their mobile broadband offerings. However the costs of mobile broadband are still comparatively high for the rural areas. Additionally, the roll out of a GSM based mobile network is costly due to the infrastructure costs. Almost all hardware and software systems used by mobile operators are propriety and costly.

Could wireless adhoc mesh networking be the answer?

A wireless mesh network (WMN) is a communications network made up of radio nodes organized in a mesh topology. Wireless mesh networks often consist of mesh clients, mesh routers and gateways [1]. The mesh clients are often laptops, cell phones and other wireless devices while the mesh routers forward traffic to and from the gateways which connect to the Internet.

– From Wikipedia

wirelessmesh

Packets in a wifi mesh network travel in exactly the same way messages get passed on through communities using the oldest form of communication: Word of mouth. There is no master node or central node, and each node is responsible for routing as well.

In South africa, there are several wifi networks in operation such as the Wireless user group, who have chapters in Cape Town, Johannesburg, Pretoria. However, the advantage of wifi mesh networks are the low costs. A mobile phone, a laptop or even a cheap wifi router could be used as a node. This would be useful in rural areas or developing countries in driving down the costs of access to communications. Wireless mesh networks can also be ADHOC networks, which would be useful in cases of disaster relief when the normal communications network such as GSM is down.

So why don’t we use more wifi mesh networks?

Right now, the setup of a wireless mesh network is complicated and takes specialized technical skills, Unix/Linux experience and some hacking about with code. There have been steps taken by the Open Source community with the B.A.T.M.A.N project (No not the dark knight) but the Better Approach To Mobile Adhoc Networking which is a routing protocol for Mesh networks.

However, this still takes some specialized skills to setup and manage. You are also faced with the issue of increasing complexity as the network grows. This makes the network much more difficult to manage and configure.

The solution?
A new South African project called Afrimesh aims to solve this problem of complexity by making setting up a wireless mesh network as simple as buying a WIFI router and switching it on, with a few minutes of configuration.

Afrimesh will be a simplified dashboard for network management and configuration. The project was founded by Antoine Van Gelder with assistance from the Meraka institute at CSIR and is based on the work done with the B.A.T.M.A.N project. I had a sneak peek at the PRE-Alpha release (See screenshots below), and being in the very early stages of development it’s still very rough. However i can say the project shows a lot of potential, and if it makes managing and rolling out a WIFI mesh network as simple as switching on a WIFI router i see a great future for Afrimesh.

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