Benin –DIY wireless enthusiasts launch Wi-Fi broadband and IP-to-IP calling

Top Story

The do-it-yourself wireless movement has strong roots in the developed world and its enthusiasts have provided a constant guerrilla challenge at the edges of the market. But in Africa there have been a number of factors that have held it back. Regulation has until fairly recently favoured the incumbent and discouraged wireless innovation. Despite several attempts to seed the idea and some occasional enthusiasm, potential techie-activists  have (as with Open Source) seemed more interested in discussing the idea than actually doing anything about it. But something seems to have changed with the launch of Contonou-Wireless by a group of wireless activists, writes Isabelle Gross.

It all started when Mathias and its friends Abslom, Armel, Gildas and Gilles were shopping around for an affordable internet connection. To carry on working together on various IT projects, Mathias Houngbo and his friends needed connectivity in the evening at home after work. The initial idea was that each of them would get a broadband connection, but as it turned out, at 45,000 CFA Francs per month each (about US $90) for 128/64 Kbits, the cost of an ADSL connection was too high. Moreover, one of the five could obtain not obtain a dial up-connection, let alone an ADSL connection because there were no phone lines available in his area.

Full of hope, they contacted local ISPs offering wireless internet access but there again, as Mathias tells it the equipment and the monthly subscription for the connection were well above what they could afford. From their discussions to find a solution came the idea to build their own wireless network based on Wi-Fi technology, just as the French wireless association (www.wireless-fr.org) had already done. But all of this was great in theory, but in the real world, the problems were just around the corner.

Like many associations that rolled out a wireless mesh network, Cotonou-Wireless was confronted right at the beginning with issues such as cost and reliability. In order to keep equipment costs low they decided to go for a wireless Linksys router which they “sourced” in France at an affordable price (about €80). Mathias points out that this router is reliable and boasts good performance, but more interestingly, the firmware for the access points is based on the open source Linux software.

At present each home is equipped with a Linksys WRT54G and either an omni-directional antenna at 10 dbi for the relay nodes on the mesh network or a simple antenna at 20.5 dbi for an end user.  Mathias also told us that the Linksys WRT54GS or the WRT54GL works well too.

With their expertise, Cotonou-Wireless could afford to take the open access software route to expand their mesh network, using standard wireless equipment that can be found almost anywhere. However, Mathias explains that the retail price of these routers is so hugely inflated in Benin that he and his partners had to obtain a direct supply from France. The Linksys box works on Linux and the operating system is therefore accessible and can be improved and updated.

Several groups of developers have worked on it and have released improved versions of the original firmware, such as Open Wrt, DD-Wrt, and Hyper Wrt. Cotonou-wireless has opted for FreiFunk Firmware (Freifunk meaning free wave in German), an adaptation of Open Wrt. Freifunk’s open source firmware offers a web enabled administration application as well as the option to integrate the OLSR protocol developed by the INRIA (Institut National de Recherche en Informatique et Automatique). OLSR, which stands for Optimised Link State Routing, is a routing protocol for mobile ad-hoc networks. The protocol is pro-active, table driven and utilises a technique called multi-point relaying for message flooding.

Cotonou-Wireless access is protected with a dedicated firewall that runs on Linux too. Its primary function is to block all unauthorised access, but it also allows traffic shaping to optimise bandwidth use. Although the wireless mesh network was primarily intended for data, they have added voice capabilities and offer IP to IP calls. The idea is to use one of the computers as an IP PABX, running with Asterisk, an open source VoIP software. Any member of the wireless network will be able to install a small piece of software on its computer, then log in and call anybody else on the network for free, using a headset or an IP phone.

Cotonou-Wireless is a community group which is run on a non-profit making basis, explains Mathias Houngbo. The association’s aim is to provide wireless internet access to users throughout the capital city of Cotonou in the Republic of Benin. Mathias hopes to use open source software and a selection of affordable Wi-Fi equipment to make the Internet accessible at more affordable price to a wider number of members of the community.

He believes that this technology can be used to get people to communicate with each other, and this will help to create new communities. Cotonou-Wireless intends to use its access points to promote exchanges between its users, develop local usage of the Internet and provide information that will appeal to local people.

So what’s the future for Cotonou-wireless?  Mathias says that they are looking to add new members to their mesh network, while at the same time getting all the paperwork ready to make the association official. Entrepreneurial spirit is clearly a key motivator for Mathias, who during the day works as developer and network administrator for the BCEAO (Central Bank for West African States), and the group is keen to share their experience with others. In parallel, Mathias and his friends have set up a website, www.cotonou-wireless.org, which they intend to use to further stimulate communication and the development of local content to serve the community.