Last Mile Connectivity - the realities

Today's online meeting illustrated perfectly the type of difficulties which can potentially beset our weekly Skype link-ups between Nigeria and the UK.

It first became apparent that all was not well after we were joined in the session by Bala, Manager of Zittnet and a regular team member. The Nigerian team quickly explained that they were experiencing problems with their network.

In fact, they had identified the presence of unusual traffic from an external client and - fearing this could mean a viral or hacking attack - had chosen to block the "intruder" for safety.

A low-key and unremarkable event in itself, but a worthwhile reminder of the immense challenges facing Bala and his hard-working team.

As a user here in Britain we can call upon an array of technical help: Be it the service provider, an IT department or at the very least, neighbours or teenagers with experience of internet usage or software difficulites. The Nigerian team has to fulfill all these roles with very limited support from fellow professionals and without the resources of a large telecommunications company.

And that is quite apart from having to contend with a variety of local "incidents", including two recent lightning strikes and a goat in their server room!

I understand that Zittnet is reportedly the first rural Internet service provider in Nigeria, providing service to a population over 150,000 spread across the whole of southern Kaduna.

Zittnet's wireless network is built on opensource, but there are problems with its configuration. ZittNet is designed on an opensource platform, yet the team do not always have sufficient in-house technical skills to fix bugs when they arise.

Zittnet is also planning an expansion to provide hotspots within and around Kafanchan - but this will require additional satellite bandwidth.

Fantsuam Foundation and Zittnett are part of the rural connectivity program known as Last Mile connectivity. It is, of course, vital that they are able to solve these technical problems as they occur, because so many people are totally reliant on them.

As Bala explained to us today: "Basically our major problem right now is filtering unwanted traffic on the network. We used to have an Ubuntu Linux server, running squid guard and delay pools - but it crashed and, since then, we've had to use a Mikro Tik server. It does not have all those features and bandwidth shaping and limiting is quite a challenge.

"If we had more technical support, our network would be more stable and we would be able to expand and take the internet to communities that have no chance of getting it at all."

Bala added: "We have seen many ICT outfits come to the rural areas and pack up after a few months because of the challenges we face. We have stuck with it, but we realise that ZittNet mission cannot be purely commercial. The idea is to build the market and make it possible for other businesses to operate."

Whereas in Britain the solution to network and technical problems is generally at our fingertips,
all the responsibility for problem-solving at Bala's end lies entirely with him and his team. It is clear that they really need the support from individuals who are experienced in this area.

Immense thanks are due to the Nigeria team who, despite their connectivity problems, were determined to ensure the meeting went ahead. Undaunted by their troubles, they commandeered unaffected computers to keep us apprised of their progress and invite others to the session.

As a result, the agenda was actioned and, in addition to an unplanned discussion on Zittnet and connectivity, all other scheduled items were covered as intended.

  • Mozzi-Mort and British African Federation
  • Sickle cell disease: We were informed that the Monthly Sickle cell support group was held and continues to expand, with the total number of members now estimated at around 90 people. This month's meeting was held under the mango tree at the Fish Farm. We are hoping to receive photos of the gathering in due course.
  • Earlier in the week, I had sent John a Sickle Cell Disease powerpoint presentation - a basic resource for the clinic staff, sufferers and their families. We hope that our collaboration with Peoples-uni will provide more. It was great to learn that John has already asked a Team member to look at arranging a translation into Hausa.
  • Updates from our special Interest Groups- namely: 

          Appropriate power 

          Social Media - (Currently looking at Twitter)

          Opensource

Comments

Thanks for writing this post Nikki - not an easy one to do!

I understand what you are trying to say, but I have some misgivings about the way it comes across - which make me hope for a few edits before anyone in the Zittnet team comes across it - or you might unwittingly cause offence.

I think you need a clearer separation between examples of technical hitches/challenges at a user level and examples of technical hitches/challenges at the professional level -  the level that Zittnett are working at. I understand the point that you are making about technical support being readily available over here at all levels. Professionals have fellow professionals to discuss problems with, most people who are IT users in the workplace have the support of an IT department, and even newbie home users usually have some kind of informal technical support from someone - possibly their children.  However - a first reading it can seem to suggest that the Zittnet team are needing help at a level that you and I might appreciate, rather than at the more exalted level where they operate. I know that is not the impression you mean to give.  

Can we discuss this?