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India's Monkey-Proof Wi-Fi Goes WiLD

A University of Berkeley research group and Air Jaldi connects a rural Himalayan region of India with WiLD -- reportedly the only low-cost wireless alternative that connects Wi-Fi mesh networks over long distances at high speeds.

by / November 1, 2006
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The latest addition to the Air Jaldi mesh network is the Lower-TCV School.

India's first wireless mesh network in the rural areas, Air Jaldi, set up about 7000 above the sea level in the Himalayan region of Dharamshala, India, is partnering with Technology and Infrastructure for Emerging Regions (TIER) research group, a University of Berkeley's Wi-Fi research initiative, to offer high-speed Wi-Fi connectivity solutions over long distance.

Revealing the new arrangement to Digital Communities, Air Jaldi's technology consultant Laird Brown said that the developers of this unique mesh network have "established a working relationship with TIER to offer its complete long distance Wi-Fi connectivity solutions (called WiLD) that will not only allow high-speed data transfers between mesh networks separated by miles, but would also do it at a cost that users in sparsely populated communities can afford."
"We honored to contribute to the ongoing success of the project", said Professor Eric Brewer, Director of the TIER Research Group. "We believe that our technology for high-bandwidth long-distance links will enable it to connect more villages and bring connectivity to wider areas."

WiLD developed by TIER, is a custom long distance, high-bandwidth, point to point Wi-Fi network, which is a fixed point to point wireless technology, like microwave links, that enables organizations to develop their own wireless network in remote areas.

"Wi-Fi originally was never built to serve the sparsely populated areas and that is its biggest drawback for sparsely populated or emerging regions," says Sonesh Surana a member of the 12-member TIER, a research group that aims to address the challenges in bringing the Information Technology revolution to the masses of the developing regions of the world by redesigning and deploying ICT technologies.

"Mostly, sparsely populated areas are low priority for wireless service providers and often do not receive wireless coverage for many years," Surana adds. "And even if such coverage reaches these areas they are usually of very low bandwidth. TIER has solved this problem by developing WiLD, which is a simple and inexpensive software and hardware combination that can provide rural or sparsely populated areas with a high-bandwidth connection to computer networks in places far away."

A Monkey-proof router.

TIER claims that currently WiLD is the only low-cost alternative to traditional wireless connectivity solutions for rural regions that achieves the twin-objectives of connecting mesh network over long distances, and at high speed that is "100 times faster than dial-up speeds and carry 100 times as far as regular Wi-Fi."

The primary cost gains, according to TIER, arise from the use of very high-volume off-the-shelf 802.11 wireless cards intended for industrialized markets, but redesigned to be reused for long-distance links via high-gain directional antennas. Another important cost advantage is related to the low weight and volume of the 802.11 equipment, which enables the use of less expensive, lightweight communication towers.

"The technology allows anyone with about $800 for a pair of small computers with directional antennas to network with another location within 50 miles and in line of sight" claims TIER, "and if there happens to be a hill in the way, no problem: A couple more antennas at the high spot can relay the signal between stations."

According to Surana, Dharamshala's Air Jaldi -- which in local parlance means fast connectivity -- is the first project that TIER has tied up with to deploy the WiLD solution. "WiLD is very complementary to what Air Jaldi does," said Surana. "Air Jaldi for instance is a bunch of hotspots spread around semi-urban areas and is separated by long distance and difficult topography like mountains and erratic weather conditions."

Surana says that TIER has already successfully deployed WiLD in two Indian locations: an eye hospital in South of India that connects with five remote villages and does remote examinations of 2500 cases per month remotely, and the other for Air Jaldi network that until now connects the Dharamshala network to a school 26 kilometers away. Elsewhere in the world, TIER has also been deployed as test-bed cases in Ghana, Cambodia, Rwanda and Philippines.

However, according to Laird Brown, TIER chose to link up with Air Jaldi -- to implement WiLD not only within the country but "also for anyone who may approach us,"-- because of the "uniqueness of the project."

Indeed in many ways Air Jaldi in one of a kind. For one claims Brown, it is the largest rural mesh network in Asia, and two, "perhaps no other mesh network has come up overcoming diverse issues starting from a difficult topography, to government and political hurdles, to bad weather conditions, to infrastructural issues like infrequent power availability."

Emerging out of a laboratory in Israel, Air Jaldi was set up at the end of February 2005 -- following the deregulation for outdoor use of Wi-Fi in India on 28 January 2005 -- by an Israeli networking engineer Yahel Ben-David. Yahel shifted base to India, after selling his tech start-up 8 years ago to enlighten and enrich the lives of the exiled Tibetan community in Dharamshala through the use of information technology.
He now says that setting up the mesh network of Air Jaldi was the most challenging job he ever experienced.

Besides the financial constraints -- Yahel says that the $30,000 odd spent so far on the project was funded mostly by his credit card -- its hard mountainous terrain was not only difficult for setting up a conventional point-to-multipoint networks, but the presence of a big population of inquisitive monkeys posed some of the most unique and serious challenges. Monkeys would often climb up the poles to fool around with the routers forcing Yahel to fix a cage around them to make them "monkey-proof".

Besides, the network also had to overcome weather hazards like heavy rains and snow, as well as erratic electricity supply. "Consequently", says Yahel "we had to re-engineer the routers to make them power efficient and also self healing."

Like the project, the Air Jaldi routers too are perhaps exceptional in the sense that they consume less than 4 watts of power and are solar-power enabled. In fact many of the mesh's routers run only on small solar panels that enable them to survive when all other communication infrastructure is damaged. "And along with their small antennas, these features also make these routers unique for disaster area applications," says Yahel.

Today, the mesh backbone includes over 30 nodes -- with the farthest about 30 kms apart -- and offer broadband Internet services at 6Mbps. It has over 2500 computers connected to it and about 500 Internet access points. Besides, Internet access, file-sharing applications, and off-site backups, it also providers its users entertainment like playback of high quality video from remote archives and VoIP telephony, all for a small fee.

"Air Jaldi is god-sent for us," says Phuntsok Dorjee an exiled Tibetan living in Dharamshala who is also a volunteer to the project. "It helps us to stay connected to the world and has even helped the Tibetans in Dharamshala to be self reliant in IT. But most importantly Air Jaldi has also helped us establish contact with our relatives in Tibet with whom we had no contact earlier."

Tibet, currently occupied and governed by China, is a political hotbed that is trying to gain independence from the Chinese.

Small wonder then that Air Jaldi has already emerged as a wonder-project around the world; the recently held Air Jaldi summit, says Brown was a huge success that attracted around 100 participants from the globe and "helped us in establishing a proof of concept in India as well as validating it internationally. We get queries every day these days from not only within India, but also from around the world that includes inquiries from government, local communities and even monasteries."

But all this attention has attracted some amount of trouble too. A few months back, the website of the Tibetan Technology Center (www.tibtec.org), one of the sponsors of Air Jaldi and one of the voices of the exiled Tibetan community was attacked and was down for over 30 minutes. According to Yahel, the attack came from a number of IP addresses all of which were trailed back to China.

Nevertheless, the concept of Air Jaldi is now set to step out of Dharamshala to elsewhere in India as well as out of the country. "Now that we have demonstrated to the world that we can set up a wireless community in a terrain as difficult as Dharamshala, we want to step out and replicate this network the world over, said Brown. "And we are already flush with queries."

Meanwhile Phuntsok Dorjee is hoping that he would be able to replicate Air Jaldi in Tibet too "as soon as we get our country back."
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Indrajit Basu is Digital Communities international correspondent. He is based in India.