MIT Public Service Center

Community WiFi Networks and Network Assessments in Tamaula and El Gusano

www.fcbajio.org

Background

The FCB (Bajío Community Foundation in English) is an eleven-year-old community development institution seeking to create viable and sustainable communities in rural areas of Guanajuato, Mexico. “Bajío” means valley and refers to the central valley of Mexico from which most Mexican immigrants originate. Our intention is to foster local leadership development, increase knowledge and skills, and create communities in which people can prosper, offering an alternative to migrating to the U.S. as the best hope for economic survival. The FCB works in over 30 rural communities to promote integrated development in the areas of education, health, economic development, basic infrastructure (water, electricity, roads), and natural resource management. We do not operate projects directly, but work by building collaborations among the nonprofit, business, academic, and government sectors. Our collaborations are both national within Mexico, and transnational-- with U.S.-based partner organizations often playing a significant role.

The Challenge

Context: The FCB has worked for the past several years in the rural communities of Tamaula and El Gusano in the state of Guanajuato.

Tamaula is a community established about 40 years ago that is remotely located, 8km up a dirt road on top of an extinct shield volcano. The community received electricity only four years ago but does not have telephone service. Cellular phone coverage is available but it is spotty. Tamaula has elementary and secondary schools, as well as an internet-based high school called PrepaNet. The high school is run as a collaborative effort between the FCB and a nearby university called the TEC de Monterrey. The curriculum is delivered on-line through satellite internet. The PrepaNet high school is the only option youth in Tamaula have to attend high school. The location of the village makes it cost prohibitive for the youth to travel down the mountain each day to attend high school in a more populated area. PrepaNet does not have a teacher, meaning that the youth are expected to work independently through their on-line curriculum for the three years or more it takes to receive their high school diploma. However, the current satellite connection works only about 50% of the time, if that. Only three of the 20 computers available in the computer center have internet access through the satellite service, and connectivity is slow. The youth have become quite discouraged with the internet-based system, often losing connectivity during on-line exams or timed assignments. Enrollment in PrepaNet has declined from 22 students to 10 students over the past year. Being able to offer the youth access to a high school education is one of the main factors that encourage them to stay in their community rather that migrate to the U.S. in search of work. Mexican law also requires a high school diploma for any type of job other than agricultural work so finishing high school has a direct impact on employability.

In addition to the satellite internet which is very unreliable, Tamaula also receives a reasonably strong 3G signal. The satellite antenna has actually been completely non-functional since December of 2009 when the wind moved it out of place. In January of 2010, we purchased a USB 3G broadband modem that has allowed one computer to get internet access, although it is still quite slow. The 10 students are currently sharing this one internet terminal. Speed tests reveal that the 3G signal strength varies in indoor versus outdoor locations. At the existing high school, the 3G speed test determined a download speed OUTSIDE of 389 kbps, versus a download speed of 57kbps INSIDE. It is not clear why the internet speed is so slow inside the high school location. One suggested cause is that the concrete walls interfere with the signal. Where the students are trying to use the internet inside the existing high school facility, there is no internal or external 3G antenna to help boost the signal. Just in the past couple of months, Telcel has made available in Guanajuato a new product that is a 3G router that would allow up to 7 computers to connect to the internet, including one Voice over IP line.

El Gusano is a community that has been in existence since the height of Guanajuato’s dominance in the silver mining industry. It is a cluster of several communities that is situated about a 40 minute drive off the main highway. Children from surrounding mountain villages walk 1 ½ hours each way to come to school in El Gusano, or its neighboring community of El Capulin where the high school is based. El Gusano does have electricity, water, and telephone. However, the community does not have internet connectivity. The FCB established a community center with a computer lab last year. This center is adjacent to the elementary school. Having internet connectivity in the computer lab would offer youth and adults an opportunity to learn internet navigation and greatly increase their access to information.

Opportunities:

1. Community WiFi Network

Ultimately, the FCB would like to facilitate the implementation of a Community WiFi Network in both Tamaula and El Gusano. Tamaula has existing 3G internet connectivity which needs to be optimized with technologies appropriate for this location (geography, topography, affordability). In El Gusano, it needs to be determined whether there might be a way to bring internet connectivity. There is telephone service in El Gusano (not in Tamaula) which might provide an opportunity. It is not known whether they get a 3G signal in El Gusano as they do in Tamaula.

In these communities, an MIT student or group of students would work on the following objectives:

  1. Research best practices and available technologies for affordable Community WiFi Networks in rural settings.
  2. Design the most affordable solution that is appropriate to the community contexts given mountainous topography, erratic electrical service (investigating solar kits as back-up power would be ideal), internet connectivity access, affordability, availability of local materials, ease of installation, and low-maintenance. The design would be written with specifications on the architecture, rationale, performance expectations, risks, and a detailed budget of associated hardware, software, installation, and maintenance costs. This deliverable will serve as a Proposal for Funding to The Daniel and Karen May Foundation and implementation funds will be made available if the design is deemed appropriate, affordable, accessible to community residents, and sustainable.
  3. In the final stage of this project and pending approval of the funding request, students would engage local community members in educating them about the design and the rationale, as well as engage them in implementation/installation of the design.

NOTE: Tamaula and El Gusano are not near enough to one another to allow the same student(s) to work in both communities. Each community will necessitate a separate design that is appropriate to its circumstances and a separate proposal for implementation funding. Students should indicate in which community they prefer to work. If there are MIT students working in both communities, the FCB will facilitate their being able to work together as much as possible and exchange ideas.

2. Network Assessment

The computer centers in Tamaula and El Gusano were both established in the past year with donated computers from Accenture and Monex, a Mexican brokerage firm. The computers are relatively new and in good working condition. Community use of the computer centers has been high. The labs were both configured by a loose association of volunteers. This limits our understanding of the current configuration and our ability to know how we might build on this configuration to improve service and capacity. The FCB does not have internal knowledge in computer or systems technology and lacks the funding to contract this type of expertise. Our lack of expertise prevents us from being able to effectively advocate for improvements in the current systems because we cannot present informed proposals for such improvements.

The FCB would like to have a network assessment with device level detail for each of the computer labs. Such an assessment would essentially provide an “as-built” description of the current configuration. Drawings would be produced that would show each device and their connections to routers, printers, etc. Device level detail would provide the specifications on each piece of hardware, including software installations. A narrative report would be produced that would describe the current configurations for the non-expert.

This Network Analysis may also serve as the basis for a needs assessment for funding proposals MIT students will write for the Community WiFi Networks.

Resources: To support this work we can provide open access to the current computer labs and the people who have been involved with the configurations previously. In-country support will be provided by the Executive Director of the Bajío Community Foundation, Adriana Cortes. We have a staff person who is in Tamaula five days a week and will serve as a support resource there. Tamaula has a junior high school teacher that is pretty technology savvy and could play an important role in summer. However, school will be out of session for part of the time MIT students are in Tamaula so his availability will need to be determined (the summer break is from early July to mid-August). There are also three or four high school students in Tamaula who have a strong interest in computer technology so they should also be engaged in this project to nurture their interest and help with sustainability. Residents in both communities are accustomed to hosting students and other visitors.

Qualifications and Assets

Spoken Spanish proficiency, at least at a conversational level, would be preferred, though not essential. Skills in computer science are fundamental, as well as the communication skills to convey this knowledge to the non-expert. Strong writing and presentation skills will help to develop baseline documents that can be used to advocate for additional resources in the longer term. Students should be able to engage in thoughtful analysis of best practices and appropriate technologies for the social and geographical contexts. Grant proposal writing and budgeting skills will be necessary. However, this is also intended as a learning process in proposal writing so technical assistance and constructive feedback will be offered by the May Foundation.

In terms of the work environment and processes, students should be self-motivating and able to organize their own work schedule for maximum productivity. Things move slowly in the communities so taking the initiative to get started and stay on task is essential. Students will live in the communities with a host family and should be comfortable with this type of living arrangement. They will have their own bedroom. Families will provide meals and will be compensated with a small stipend.

It is also preferred that local community residents would be engaged in the learning environment. One of our important values is technology transfer and local knowledge building. Students will be asked to be intentional about engaging local residents, particularly high-school-age youth, to partner with them in their work and learn from their skills. Students should be proactive about sharing their data, skills, and any deliverables with community residents and stakeholder institutions, ensuring that this information is accessible to our network for the long term benefit of community residents.

While not required, students who have some other type of skill or interest to share—playing a musical instrument, art, sports, etc.—would also be encouraged to share these interests with the community as part of the engagement process.

Time constraints

These will be ongoing projects for which we would welcome support at any time. Students should indicate their interest in terms of which community and which aspect of the project they’d like to pursue at the time of contact, so there is clear understanding on our part.

Tamaula will be given priority consideration for the WiFi project due to the fact that the high school distance learners’ ability to study depends upon optimizing internet connectivity. Students would ideally work on both aspects (WiFi and network analysis) in the respective communities.

Contact

MIT students interested in this opportunity should contact Karen May, Director of The Daniel and Karen May Foundation and Board Member of Fundacion Comunitaria del Bajio, at Karen@may.com or 847.571.7729 (mobile).

PSC Support

MIT students who develop projects around these ideas may apply for support from the Public Service Center’s Fellowships, Internships, or Grants programs. Please check the program descriptions and deadlines and talk to program staff to determine which is most appropriate for your needs and project.

If you have funding from outside the PSC that enables you to work on one of these projects, that’s great! However, please do let us know if you work on a project you saw advertised here, even if you don’t use our funds. And remember, the PSC staff are happy to advise on service projects even if we are not funding them ourselves.

 
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