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Bo-kaap Village Telco – Part 1

While David Rowe and Lemi Soares have been busy building a Village Telco in Dili, the capitol of East Timor, we’ve also been hard at work in Cape Town building a Village Telco within the Bo-kaap community.  The Bo-kaap is a largely muslim community in the heart of Cape Town.  Many of the residents go back several generations and have fascinating stories to tell.  It is a mix of wealthy and poor and also has a sprinkling of “immigrants” mostly white, artistic types (film-makers, photographers, architects) who have been attracted by the Bo-kaap’s unique character.

In terms of a place to pilot a Village Telco, it sits above the demographic we intended the Village Telco for but it seemed a good choice for a number of reasons:

  1. There is a really strong community.  There are strong social bonds linking everyone in the Bo-kaap and strong social bonds means a strong desire to communicate locally.  This was the strongest motivator for choosing the Bo-kaap
  2. We’re still learning and don’t want to create a dependency on something that is still evolving. The fact that Bo-kaap community is a little wealthier on average than our target community means that although they may value the Village Telco, they won’t be completely stuffed up if something goes wrong as we perfect the network.
  3. It’s convenient.  Tempting as it is to set up a rural Village Telco right away, the Bo-kaap is not many minutes away for me so easy to get to and work on.

At the right you can see a screenshot from the Afrimesh software that we use to monitor the mesh.  Right now we’re up to about 50 nodes in the mesh and the increasing density continues to make things easier and easier.  In the beginning we had to be very careful about long links and used some Ubiquity Nanostation IIs to make some of the long shots.  We also had to be very careful about getting the Mesh Potatoes into a strategic position to pick-up other Mesh Potatoes.  Now, once I get up on someone’s roof, I can usually see a Mesh Potato in some direction so installation is as simple as finding something to attach the Mesh Potato to.  TV antenna’s have proven to be very convenient in this regard.

The installation process for the Bo-kaap has been slow, partly because it took a long time to get production Mesh Potatoes into our hand but also because the Bo-kaap is an old community and the houses in it have evolved more than they have been planned.  Each house is a little exercise in complexity in terms of getting to the roof, finding a cable path down from the roof, finding power near the desire location of the phone, etc.  I’ve got it down to a routine now though.  Having the right tools like a long concrete drill bit for going through walls are simple things that make life a lot easier.

We’re learning a lot as we install the Bo-kaap Village Telco.  We decided to offer 100 Mesh Potatoes to the community in exchange for user feedback on the Village Telco.  In order to build the most useful network possible, we built connections by following social ties, a bit like snowball sampling in research.  We started with a family that ran a cafe and followed their social ties, brothers, sisters, friends, neighbours.  Each new person is at liberty to suggest others.  By following existing strong social ties, the Village Telco immediately begins to delivery high-value connections.  An older mother-in-law that wants to stay in touch with her family who are only a few doors away but it is hard for her to get around.  A mother who recently became a grandmother wants to stay in touch with her daughter.  In each of these cases, they could use a mobile phone to call but like the majority of people in South Africa they are conscious of what time spent on the phone costs them.  A local Village Telco call is free.

Mesh Potatoes can be gateway-ed to other telecom networks and can also offer Internet services but for the time being we are just offering local voice because the devices do that on their own at no additional cost.  Once the community is ready to take over the network themselves and manage external voice and Internet charges, we’ll enable those other features.  Stand by for more from the Bo-kaap Village Telco.