Learning the ropes of VSAT

So thanks to some really generous board members and a heroic last minute drive by the infamous Jeff I now have all of the pieces I need to build the physical infrastructure for my VSAT centric wireless mesh network. My hardware consists of:
3 WRT5G boxes
1 Direcway6000 VSAT modem
1 Transceiver arm (sends and receives signals)
1 old school 1.8m satellite dish
Various power supplies, cables, etc.

Now I need to find someone who resells bandwidth on a satellite that is pointed in my general direction and compatible with my hardware. I was hopeful that GT&T, a Belgian company, would fit the bill as they seem to come up in lots of google searches. But a few minutes on the phone put that hope to rest - they have proprietary equipment. A little more googling took me to Canada, and a picture telling me which bird I need to point at: PanamSAT PAS10. I thought PanAm went bankrupt years ago - apparently they have just relocated to a higher altitude.
So now I have it down to two different resellers. These Canadian hosers who are giving me hope not returning my phone calls, and ComputerLand Limited, a Malawian company in Blantyre, who are giving me excuses has sent me a quote. Looks like about $200-$300 per month with . I just received an email from some Czech guys who seem to be really with it. Not sure how I even found them, but I have been casting my net far and wide.

I think I will start with this service:

iWay Homeuser - US $150 per Terminal per month
Single Computers Shared 64 kbps or 128 kbps multiple uplinks and shared 4.5 mbps or greater down link (TDMA/DVB) up to a maximum speed of 128 kbps per terminal. Budgeted on average of 0.5 GB of traffic volume per month. Usage will be monitored by Principal and if exceeded by more than 20% (in aggregate) over a two-month period Customer will be required to upgrade to another more suitable account.

America - Christian Paradox

America is simultaneously the most professedly Christian of the developed nations and the least Christian in its behavior.

This article really summed up a lot of my feelings about what is wrong with that vast majority of Americans that call themselves Christians. I wish I had Harper's to read it in its entirety, but instead I will just quote a huge swath of it here:

Christ was pretty specific about what he had in mind for his followers. What if we chose some simple criterion�say, giving aid to the poorest people�as a reasonable proxy for Christian behavior? After all, in the days before his crucifixion, when Jesus summed up his message for his disciples, he said the way you could tell the righteous from the damned was by whether they�d fed the hungry, slaked the thirsty, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, and visited the prisoner. What would we find then?

In 2004, as a share of our economy, we ranked second to last, after Italy, among developed countries in government foreign aid. Per capita we each provide fifteen cents a day in official development assistance to poor countries. And it�s not because we were giving to private charities for relief work instead. Such funding increases our average daily donation by just six pennies, to twenty-one cents. It�s also not because Americans were too busy taking care of their own; nearly 18 percent of American children lived in poverty (compared with, say, 8 percent in Sweden). In fact, by pretty much any measure of caring for the least among us you want to propose�childhood nutrition, infant mortality, access to preschool�we come in nearly last among the rich nations, and often by a wide margin. The point is not just that (as everyone already knows) the American nation trails badly in all these categories; it�s that the overwhelmingly Christian American nation trails badly in all these categories, categories to which Jesus paid particular attention. And it�s not as if the numbers are getting better: the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported last year that the number of households that were �food insecure with hunger� had climbed more than 26 percent between 1999 and 2003.

This Christian nation also tends to make personal, as opposed to political, choices that the Bible would seem to frown upon. Despite the Sixth Commandment, we are, of course, the most violent rich nation on earth, with a murder rate four or five times that of our European peers. We have prison populations greater by a factor of six or seven than other rich nations (which at least should give us plenty of opportunity for visiting the prisoners). Having been told to turn the other cheek, we�re the only Western democracy left that executes its citizens, mostly in those states where Christianity is theoretically strongest. Despite Jesus� strong declarations against divorce, our marriages break up at a rate�just over half�that compares poorly with the European Union�s average of about four in ten. That average may be held down by the fact that Europeans marry less frequently, and by countries, like Italy, where divorce is difficult; still, compare our success with, say, that of the godless Dutch, whose divorce rate is just over 37 percent. Teenage pregnancy? We�re at the top of the charts. Personal self-discipline�like, say, keeping your weight under control? Buying on credit? Running government deficits? Do you need to ask?

Boys will be boys

A couple of weeks ago Claudia and I were at Luwawa Forest Lodge - which
is a marvelous retreat just a few hours from Lilongwe. They have great
mountain biking, canoing, sailing, and gorgeous scenery all around. We
camped along with a bunch of friends from Lilongwe and had a great time.

On the second day we went on a hike called Poachers Walk which was
really beautiful and varied. It starts with a walk through a village
where Claudia learned how to pound ufa with some of the girls there.
As we walked out into the marshland some of the boys from the village
joined as and proceeded to walk with us for the rest of the way - about
an hour and a half total! The walk then went into some forest and then
back down by the lake. Boys everywhere know that sticks are fun to carry
and play with and Malawian boys are no different. Our little guys found
these HUGE sticks that they carried the whole way. Who needs
Playstations and Nintendos when the world is full of sticks? Here is a
picture of me with our companions.

How to build a mesh network with WRT54Gs

This is just a quick bit of techie documentation capturing what I did. I figured most of this out thanks to:
Florian Walther and a bunch of other guys from olsr-users at olsr.org.

Here is my plan: Take a bunch of Freifunked WRT54Gs and disperse them around the neighborhood, preferable on rooftops with antennas. Some of these would be connected to VSAT systems and therefore provide a route to the web. Then whoever wants to jump on the mesh, just turns on their machine and connects with normal DHCP to the ad-hoc network supplied by the mesh.

Here is my step by step:

Take a stock WRT54G, connect to it via the web interface. Upload the freifunk firmware. It will reboot, then you can connect to it on the same address: You will do this for all of your WRT54Gs (if you only have one or none, for that matter, you can still build a mesh network with a PC running the OLSR.org software).

Next I configured the boxes to have sane IP addresses, to offer separate blocks of IP addresses to clients, and to maximize the distances they cover. Here are the settings. I copied most of the plan from Florian's topology diagram. Here are the changes I made from the default settings:


WLAN Protocol: Static
IP Address:
WLAN Mode: Ad Hoc (Peer to Peer)
ESSID: Lil-Mesh
TX Power: 84
Radio Mode: B Only
Transmission Rate: 1 Megabit/s

LAN Protocol: Static
Disable Firewall: Checked

WAN Protocol: DHCP
Hostname: lil1-wrt54g

The second and third boxes were similar. Differences for the second box:

IP Address:


Hostname: lil2-wrt54g

Once that is done you can power up all of your WRT54Gs. If you have an internet connection from a DSL modem, or a shared internet connection then plug that into the internet port of one of the WRT54Gs. The mesh will then calculate all of the optimum routes to one another, including routes to the closest internet connection. Now connect your clients to them with either an ethernet cable or with a wireless connection. Finished!

I found that I didn't need any of the HNA entries - and also turning on NAT made things simpler. I just successfully googled from a neighbors house about 1/4 mile away using the mesh. I am on my way!

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

How to build the Johnny Redneck Special

Your 2nd cousin told you can download NASCAR races, get fishin' reports, and find nekkid pictures of his wife on the internets - but that old AOL dialup nonsense just won't cut it for serious internets trolling. So you had your old lady scour the garage sales and she found a linksys WRT54G wireless access point. Now you want to use it to swipe some free internets access from the house next door to the trailer park, but so far you can only get a signal when you plug it into your neighbor's hookup. Last week your boy skinned his cat, so you doubt you can continue using his hookup. Well, why not attach the Johnny Redneck special to your WRT54G? Read on for instructions and pictures:

First get the materials. Cardboard, tape, scissors, a pencil, and some tinfoil (the stuff covering yesterday's pizza will work if you smooth it out first). Cut out two of these shapes in your cardboard (if you have had more than one six pack you might want to get your boy to do it for you):

Then cut up some rectangles of tinfoil and tape them onto some squares of cardboard or something flimsier (the cardboard from a 12 pack case of MGD should be perfect for these).

Fold up the first cardboard as seen in the picture and put some holes in it to slide it onto the existing antennas. Then wrap the tinfoil around the curved cardboard and tape it all up.

Point the puppies at the yuppie's house, set the WRT54G to Client mode (managed), plug it into your slaptop, and crack a six-pack - you deserve it.

I picked up this here idea from a book called Wireless Hacks by Rob Flickenger - check your local garage sale. Rob up and took the idea from the freeantennas.com boys - they have some other nice antennas too:
Windmaker(personally I prefer beans)

Simon says do the funky chicken

Claudia and Temwa
On Saturday night we were invited to a party at Temwa's house, who is one of Claudia's colleagues. Besides working very hard at OIBM, Temwa has been spending all of her evenings and weekends studying, and last week was finals week. So to celebrate being finished she threw a big party. It was my first real Malawian party and it was a lot of fun. Temwas hired two bouncy castles for the kids, and they were bbq-ing (we call it brai-ing in Africa) all night long. I brought my camera which made me an instant celebrity. The kids were so excited to have pictures taken of them, so I must have taken 100 pictures of the kids climbing, sliding, and just posing among all of the bouncy goodness.
As it became darker the bouncy castle went to bouncy castle sleep and the kids converged on the grownups. Soon we were making shadow puppets and I showed them the old severed thumb magic trick.

The music was playing and somehow Claudia suggested we play Simon Says. I never imagined how perfect Simon Says is for playing on the dance floor - especially with a bunch of kids who revel in grownups being silly. Simon says hop on one foot, Simon says do the chicken dance, Simon says dance in slow motion, Jump up and down - ah ah ah I didn't say Simon Says! It was a blast, and we even had a few grownup Malawians participating - perhaps they thought Muzungus are always so silly at parties - and perhaps we are. I can't wait for our next party!

How to build a hot tub in Malawi

So about a month ago we decided that we should build a hot tub. It
happened at about the same time that I realized that I had been talking
a lot about what I should build (solar cell factory, Malawi Linux User
Group, ISP in a blimp, etc etc) and how little of it I had actually
done. So with my sister-in-law Andrea expertly cracking the
"getting-it-done" whip that only 2 years in the Peace Corps can hone -
we set out to do it. For no particular reason we decided to buy some
pipe first. So we went "across the river" to a hardware store that we
thought might have it. We bought some elbows and 30 meters of the
cheapest plastic pipe I have ever seen, and realized that our tiny
Toyota hatchback was not going to handle this, unless Andrea undertook
a jousting posture - which given the number of pedestrians on any road
in Malawi is not a good idea. So they chopped it up into a number of
Toyota sized pieces and we drove to a hill near the river where about
50 women with babies tied to their backs sit hammering rocks into
smaller rocks all day long. We negotiated for half a truckload of river
sand and some nice large flat rocks that had not yet been hammered. The
truck then came and loaded up our rocks and we drove down the hill to
the river for sand. Except midway down the hill we saw our 10 rock
stewards jump off the truck as it barrelled past us and came to a stop
on the bridge. The truck was broken. We then had to drive around
looking for a replacement truck which was eventually found. Meanwhile,
Andrea had developed a taste for bricks, piles of which we were
discovering everywhere, none of which were for sale. The truck then
bounced down a horrible road towards the river where they stopped and
shoveled a bunch of dirt into the truck. We guided them home, where
they unloaded our sand and rocks and then we asked them to go and buy
500 bricks. In total we spent somewhere around $50 in sand, bricks,
rocks and transport - clearly being overcharged - but at least we were
injecting money to people that needed it and were willing to work hard
for it.

George and Lazaro set off shoveling and soon enough we had a hole that
was much much larger than what our plans called for. It would have been
even larger, but Lazaro discovered a water pipe (he didn't pickaxe
through it, phew!) that turned our rectangle into a funky
quadrilateral. We bought 6 bags of cement for about $10 each and
proceeded to brick up the outline of our hottub.

None of us had ever worked with bricks or cement before, and George
wanted to get a friend who knew construction to help us - but I told
him we could figure it out. So all of us took turns hauling bricks and
sand, mixing cement and laying bricks.

A few days later our shell was completed, Andrea had to fly back to LA,
and I received a text message saying that Lazaro's mother had died. A
month and many Kwacha later, I found out it wasn't his mother, but his
younger mother - which apparently means his aunt, but that is another
story. So Claudia took Andrea to the airport while I took George and
Lazaro to catch the next bus to Dedza. Hot tub construction was thus
halted for a few days.
Things picked up again when George and Lazaro returned and they covered
the bricks with a layer of cement. We then asked them to build a grass
wall around it and I started working on the heater system.

I dismantled a broken hot water kettle, rewired it, then covered the wires with heaps of silicon.
After about a month that included a week and a half of truly hard work
by George and Lazaro in particular, it was ready to use. We filled it
and I ran the wires from the heater through our bedroom window and
jammed them into a socket. A day and a half later (it is a small
heater!) it was warm - we lit some citronella candles to keep away the
malaria and enjoyed our very own African hottub!