DIY Broadband in Malawi

I have been told that there is not a single piece of wire that crosses a border here. This means that every byte of electronic communication with the outside world must go out over a satellite.

Most people here use dialup. Dialing up means dialing the local ISP and then getting a connection to their satellite. But you pay about 3 cents per minute to the telephone company, and then about $40/month to the ISP. Often the ISPs (Malawi Net, Africa Online, Globe) are extremely oversubscribed, so 5-10 second hiccup delays or timeouts are normal, and despite a 56.6 kbps connection, transfer rates are often stuck at 20kbps . What does this crappiness cost the average user? 60 minutes per day * 3 cents = 180 cents, almost 2 dollars/day. So it costs $100/month for a very poor internet connection.

For someone like me this is unacceptable - time to solve this problem.

Jeff sent me his old internet over satellite (VSAT) setup since he now has very fast internet via ADSL or cable or something. This was a pain to ship and get through customs, but it made it here. I now have to figure out how to get it mounted and pointed at the right satellite, or "bird" as those in the know call them. It being 22,600 miles away, and requiring me to be able to send data to it as well as receive from it means some experience or at least some knowledge is required. Hopefully subsequent blogs will capture my triumphs in this area.

But a satellite connection doesn't come cheap. I found a Belgium bird owner (GTT, IPSky2e) whose cheapest package is 99 Euros for a shared 128kbps down, 32kbps up link. 32kbps is worthless. For 300 Euros a month I can get 2Mbps down and 153kbps up. 300 Euros is a lot, but what if I could share the bandwidth and the cost with my neighbors...

I also had Jeff send out 3 linksys WRT54Gs. These are wireless access points that cost about $50/piece. But they aren't just black boxes - they are mini computers running Linux, and they are easily and commonly hacked into something far beyond their original intention. So I downloaded the Freifunk Firmware a free open source replacement for the WRT54G. You just upload a file via the Linksys web interface, reboot and you have a turbocharged wireless router. It should be noted that there is a company called Sveasoft that also offers a firmware replacement for the WRT54G, but they charge and are evil - so play that Friefunk Firmware whiteboy, and support the open source revolution.

Freifunk is cool, not because the web interface includes a picture of one of the the Friefunk authors with a glass of beer so large he must be German speaking, but because of the magic it adds to your Linksys box. Inclusive in this magic is built in support for OLSR ad-hoc mesh networking. A wireless mesh network is a network made up of a bunch of dispersed nodes that share one or multiple internet connections. With a few freifunk'd WRT54Gs and one fast internet connection a whole neighborhood can join the broadband revolution - even a neighborhood in the warm heart of Africa.

In a sentence - one VSAT connection shared via a mesh network of 3 WRT54Gs with the Freifunk Firmware is going to allow me to provide a fast internet connection (and share its costs) with my neighbors. Pretty sweet, eh?

Of course I would like to reach as many people (more people = more money for bandwidth) in my neighborhood as possible. Freifunk helps here, by allowing you to boost the transmission power far beyond what a normal Linksys box allows. You can also reduce the speed from 54Mb/s to 1Mb/s - various sources tell me this reduces noise levels and extends distance. The network bandwidth is limited, but this is inconsequentional since as as long as your internet connection is less than 1MB/s (which it may not be if I can get enough people to join me). Finally, I am building antennas. I picked up the really fun Wireless Hacks by Rob Flickenger last time I was in the US, and it is full of great stuff - including how to build antennas. So far I have only built the Johnny Redneck Special - which is basically tinfoil and cardboard - but they claim it will double your reach for a given direction. I would like to try and build one of the others eventually (pringles can, DSTV dish, etc) but so far I already have about 1/4 mile line of sight when I put a WRT54G on the chimney. I am so excited to get this all working.

WRT54G on my roof

3 Response to DIY Broadband in Malawi

  1. makaika says:

    Did you get the internet service going? What part of Malawi are you in. I aso heard the country will be getting affordable broadband connections with a grant from the UN, whats your take?
    Thanks in advance
    Mackay (Indiana)

  2. I am a missionary moving to Blantyre, Malawi from TN USA. We are a tiny NGO serving children at risk in Malawi. I am not technologically oriented, but I would be so very grateful for your help. This internet issue has plagued our ministry for years. Is there any way you can help me get reliable Internet service in a home office in Sunnyside (Blantyre). Not being techno, I am at a loss, even with what you wrote here. We SO want to be able to Skype and Facebook and crowdfund through social media. Thanks for your time.

  3. Melissa - this post was from 12 years ago! Happy to say that things have improved quite a bit. I'm sure you'll have no problem getting internet in Blantyre.

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