Mahavilachchiya Mesh Networking Pilot Project
A student in the rural areas of Sri Lanka has to pay an average of Rs. 150 for 30 minutes as internet surfing charges mainly because service is scarce in these areas. This amount does not include transportation costs and the time spent to reach the internet café.
The demand for knowledge of IT has increased in Sri Lanka but not at the pace of other developing countries mainly due to barriers such as the high cost of hardware equipment and system software, high Internet surfing charges (to be paid to the ISP separately), telecommunication charges (to be paid to the telecom service provider), cost of electricity and value added taxes (VAT) applicable to the above services. These reasons prevent rural children from advancing and reaping the benefits of IT.
The Horizon Lanka Institute is a non profit organization situated in Mahavilachchiya that provides education including English, Science, Mathematics, Computer Science and Graphics to about 200 village kids. This school is exceptional because they have been able to receive aid from foreign donors to provide children with computers to their homes. The children have a zeal to learn about computers and have developed websites after studying graphics and web design. Currently about 50 households have computers but they do not have internet access nor are they connected in a network.
In February 2005, ICTA partnering with Enterprise Technology (Pvt) Ltd, was awarded a grant by the Pan Asia ICT R&D grants program to set up a pilot mesh network in Mahavilachchiya. Mesh networking is a new innovative solution that can provide a low cost communication network to villages in rural areas that are hardest to reach.
This pilot project aims at providing high-speed internet access to 30 households and to identify the key success factors for sustainable services. New Orleans recently built a free citywide network using mesh technology after identifying that it could have facilitated in the Katrina hurricane relief.
Mesh networking comprises of a series of smart digital routers (Meshboxes) designed to carry high performance wireless internet over a wide area.
Mesh networking is unique because instead of having a central server which determines how data is passed between computers, the mesh creates a network of equals, so individual computers find the best way to communicate with each other. All the computers are connected together to form a resilient network in such a way that the more devices there are on a network, the more routes there are through it. It can grow organically and will automatically organize itself. The ad hoc nature of the mesh makes it easy to start small and expand where necessary, without the complex reprogramming involved with adding to a traditional, top-down network. If one node were to fail, the network will automatically redirect data through an alternative route.
Despite the fact that his project would cater to the requirements of a very rural community, it is now facing restrictive frequency licensing fees imposed by the Government telecommunication regulations. The jungle terrain of Mahavilachchiya has prevented optimum coverage and necessitated an increase in the number of nodes to be used (preliminary testing was carried out using two nodes); consequently, the frequency charges have gone beyond the budget availability of the project. Currently discussions are underway to reduce the license fees drastically so that the funding for this project will be sufficient to provide connectivity to all 30 homes.