Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh: What could be common between Silicon Valley and Dharamsala? Computers of course, more specifically wireless community networking, and spirituality playing the binding force. If the Silicon Valley gave the initial push to the computer revolution, Dharamsala could well be on its way to lead the world in low-cost community networking. The Dharamsala Wireless-Mesh Community Network, being tried out here has that kind of potential.
Taken up by a former Silicon Valley dot-commer and members of the underground security in February 2005, following the deregulation for outdoor use of WiFi in India, the programme is aimed at building a low-cost wireless mesh network to provide cheap, reliable data and telephony to community organiSations. Yahel Ben-David, founder of the Dharamsala Wireless Mesh, honed his tech skills in Silicon Valley and his mountain skills in the Israeli military. Even more amazing is the fact that recycled hardware, solar power, open-source software and nerd ingenuity is what powers the projects.
Run from a single room in the Tibetan Childrens’ Village, the mesh connects more than 3,000 computers, most of them having Internet access. Apart from Internet access, the mesh members are using the network for extensive file-sharing applications, off-site backups, playback of high quality video from remote archives and extensive VoIP telephony. A central VoIP, software-based PBX is installed (Asterisk) and it provides advance telephony services to members. The Asterisk PBX is also interfacing the PSTN telephone network, yet due to legal issues it is used at present only for incoming calls into the Mesh. Subscribers use a large variety of software-phones, as well as numerous ATAs (Analog Telephone Adaptors) and full-blown, fancy, IP-Phones.
The Mesh network is based on recurring deployments of a hardware device, which is designed, and build locally, known as the Himalayan-Mesh-Router. The same Mesh-routers are installed at every location, with only different antennas, depending on the geographical locations and needs. A wide range of antennas, from 8 – 11dBi Omni-directional, to 12 – 24dBi directional antennas and occasionally some high-gain (and cost) sector antennas are used.
Power consumption of a Mesh-Router is less then 4watt making them ideal devices to be solar powered, and indeed many of our units in Dharamsala are power solely by small solar panels. Solar power in combination with small antennas, suggest that such a network is ideal for disaster areas, as it very likely to survive when all other communication infrastructure is damaged.
But right now the network is being used by mostly Tibetan organisations and schools, who agree to host equipment and pay a nominal fee to access the Internet and make Web-based phone calls. Hopefully, the much-in-need town and its surrounding areas will soon be benefiting from the project as a whole.
The project has created interest in technology leaders and organizations all over the world, and to bring them together a summit titled AirJaldi was held in Dharamsala a few days back while a 10-day workshop is still on. The AirJaldi Summit will address some of the ways that wireless solutions can be used to provide affordable Internet access in rural communities. The conference will focus on the advantages that wireless networks can provide, by enhancing the quality of education, governance and health-care, increasing economic development, and promoting cultural exchange. Special emphasis will be placed on identifying best practices for rapidly increasing connectivity for regions most in need.