Kurtis Heimerl and I arrived in Papua, Indonesia last week to deploy TIER's Village Base Station. The Village Base Station, or VBTS, is a system for building GSM phone networks that's particularly well suited for rural areas. VBTS costs less than 1/10th the price of traditional cellular equipment (in no small part due to its use of the excellent OpenBTS project), but where it really shines is its low power consumption: since it only requires a peak power of 80W, we're able to run our VBTS here solely on micro-hydro and solar power. In the coming months, we'll be working closely with WamenaCom, a local ISP, and the Misionaris Sekolahin primary school to build a local cellular phone network here in the Central Highlands of Papua. We're basically the phone company, like AT&T or Verizon, but we're not just providing phone service: we'll also be deploying local services to support the excellent work that Misionaris Sekolahin is already doing in this community. We're starting in the town of Desa, about 300km southwest of Jayapura. Wamena, the nearest town with cellular phone service, is a two hour drive away -- when the road is passable!
Normally you'd expect a first-week trip report to be full of frustrating stories of things not working, but aside from drilling through one of the motherboards we brought we've been making smooth and steady progress. We set up our first base station the day we arrived. WamenaCom uses a pole strapped to a tree next to the school to provide Internet access to the community, so we decided to mount our base station there too. After a bit of impressive tree climbing by the WamenaCom and Misionaris Sekolahin folks, the first VBTS was powered, networked, and installed, and we were able to make test calls. Not bad for day one! Coverage has exceeded our expectations, with our single base station able to provide strong signal to central Desa, even reaching the neighboring town of Kota about a mile away across a valley.
Word that cell phone signal is going to be available in Desa has spread like wildfire throughout the community and neighboring villages (well, like wildfire would spread if not for all the rain we've been having). We've still got a lot of work left to do to make the network reliable before we can open up the network and start selling SIM cards to people. Since that first day, we've set up outgoing calling, built a billing system for the network (our friends at WamenaCom will be maintaining this network in the long term, so we want it to be financially sustainable) and done a *lot* of performance and reliability tuning, which is vital since our only connection to the outside world is a VSAT connection. We also have been doing training with WamenaCom on building ISP-grade long-distance WiFi networks; we'll be using the long-distance WiFi network they're building to connect our next VBTS installations in neighboring towns back to our central hub in Des.
Everyone we've interacted with is very excited that they'll be able to use their cell phones for calls and SMS around Desa, whether to communicate with family in other parts of Indonesia or just to send messages across the valley (a trip that can take hours of hiking up and down steep and slippery hillsides). We're looking forward to working with WamenaCom, Misionaris Sekolahin, and the rest of the community here to deploy VBTS over the next few months.
Wireless mesh networks have gained a bit of popularity lately as a mechanism for bypassing Internet censorship. We in TIER have a bit of collective experience actually building wireless mesh networks and have come to see that they are impractical to build and operate at any meaningful scale. I wrote a piece this weekend about some of the technical reasons why mesh networks cannot work. Worse, the recent fascination with the technology itself threatens to divert resources from more effective real-world action in support of Internet free speech: wireless networks are great, but censorship and government oppression cannot be countered through technology alone.