COWMesh Ranikajal #0 – Building Networks in Connectivity Choked Rural India

DSC03027Earlier this month I was at the Ranikajal Jeevanshala school in Kakrana, Madhya Pradesh, studying the region for possible applications of the COWMesh network design that we have been working with.

Connectivity in India is interestingly distributed. The Internet is penetrating every day into new and hitherto unreached areas. However, and this is a big however, the quality of connectivity varies drastically between different areas. In most newly connected locations the best possible data connection that can be found is a 2G network that experientially feels like an old 56k modem line to use.

Even this connectivity is quite welcome as it is perfectly adequate for text browsing and email. DSC03056However, GMail and other popular webmail services now come with extremely heavy interfaces (all that AJAX and Javascript-y stuff that keeps pulling data from the server “on-demand”), which are extremely hard to use on slow connections. Furthermore, even where a fast connection (like a 3G) is available the cost of data is quite high, considering that rural India is has traditionally been viewed as a low income region. The current retail rate for 3G is about INR 250/GB. This means that a standard 120 minute mp4 video would cost almost 180-200 rupees. Compare this with the price of  DVDs which often contain several 120 minute videos for the measly price of INR 40, or even with the price of an SD card, which retails at about INR 280 for a 16 GB card, which can be re-used and overwritten.

DSC03036The Ranikajal team, which has recently seen the addition of outstanding ex-DAE scientist Shri Swapan Bhattacharya, originally envisioned using the COWMesh to create a wireless link to the nearest location where 3G connectivity is available to bring fast Internet to the school.

As part of our survey and following discussion we observed that the vantage points where we would need to set up hops in order to connect Kakrana to the nearest 3G connected locations, i.e. Dahi or Kulvat, were largely uninhabited. Therefore setting up and maintaining routers in those locations would not be feasible.

Further, 2G network access was working via Airtel on the school campus, at a hilltop and it appeared to be far more feasible to set up a local mesh to connect the top of the hill to the bottom and then provide a link into the village. Since full scale browsing on the new graphical web is not really feasible using the 2G network, we concluded that we need to set up a mechanism to provide email access. The way this would work would be that a local mail server running on a Raspberry Pi would be attached to the wireless router on the hill. The Pi will be connected to a smartphone over a usb tether to provide an internet connection, which will be share over the mesh. A dongle may also be used, though our experience tells us that mobile phones are best optimised for using low bandwidth high latency connections, provided of course that advertisement downloading apps can be weeded out.

DSC03100The mail server will download emails from the users accounts whenever the connection permits. Users in the school and anyone else on the mesh with an account on the local mail server can access and send emails through it. This would allow users to use email without the slow experience of trying to load a rich web interface through a slow connection.

System is currently being built. More posts to follow on testing and application.

(Update – We are using OfflineIMAP and Postfix with a Roundcube interface at the moment)


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