Wifi 4 Change

This blogpost is a report of a pilot project: "Wifi 4 Change". We wanted to bring free wifi to a poor, traditional village in the South-East of Turkey and see what happens. At most families in this village, the father would be unemployed for substantial parts of the year, but have a smartphone and would occasionally buy some prepaid bandwidth when there is money coming in. The women are generally not allowed to leave the house unless it's necessary for household tasks, but some of them are allowed to use their husband's phone.

We successfully installed the wifi, and just came back from the exciting and unforgettable trip. We learned a lot about the people who live there, and about the hurdles involved in a small-scale charity project like this. In about a year or so, we can report about the impact on the educational and commercial opportunities of the locals which we hope it will have.

For now, I will try to write up the experience of the installation trip in such a way that this pilot is now hopefully repeatable: any backpacker who wants to do something for the people in the area he or she travels through, should be able to bring free wifi to a village by following this recipe, not giving up, and inventing alternative solutions when things don't go as planned.

I can certainly recommend this, and I know there are a lot of travellers out there who would like to do something charitable, but don't know where to start. If you have any questions, or would like to discuss this in a Skype/Hangout/WebRTC call with us, then please feel encouraged to contact me about this topic! For instance mention me (@michielbdejong) on Twitter, or email michiel at michielbdejong dot com.

When internet comes

When I first got access to proper internet, this had a huge impact on my life. It was 1993, and I was 18 years old. I had just switched to a different university. The reason I switched was that I wanted to have more discussions about topics that fascinated me at the time: the "many worlds" view of quantum physics, futurology, artificial intelligence, fossil fuel depletion, things like that. Most of my peers were interested in more common topics of conversation, like sports, or music. The culture at the university where I was, also didn't encourage talking about anything else. Switching to a university with a different culture partially worked: I found some friends there who were interested in the same topics as me. So that was great!

But what I hadn't anticipated was that I would find even better matching discussion partners in cyberspace. The web had only just been invented, and there were no good search engines yet. Email was still very much a geek thing. But through the internet forums, I met, for instance, a group of 15 people who discussed the metaphysical implications of the irreversibility of causality. Some of us were from the US, some from Japan. The closest person to me interested in that very specific topic was probably at least a thousand kilometers away from me in meatspace, given that there was only a handful of us on Earth. Thanks to the internet though, we could have passionate discussions about this fascinating topic. I even "met" Hans Moravec online, the author of one of the futurology books I had been reading.

You're reading this blogpost on the web, so you know how great it is to have internet access. You also probably know how annoying it is to have a slow internet connection, one which you have to pay for each time you connect, or one for which you have to ask around to find out who has the password.

The Idea

The idea of "Wifi 4 Change" is quite simple: bring free wifi to a place where people need it. One aspect of this free-as-in-freedom, uncensored, anonymous access to the internet. Some very interesting projects in this area include Tor, Serval, PGP, the Free Network Foundation, and GNUnet, among of course many others.

We know there are always forces trying to block each other and spy on each other; most nation state governments block some services, whether commercial, grass roots, or from competing governments. Also, most nation state governments spy on individual internet users. This can affect any service and any user, just like shoplifting and bag snatching are facts-of-life which real-world shops and individuals have to deal with.

When talking about a "free" internet, one association that comes to mind, is an internet where you can freely use any service you like, no matter which country you are connecting from, and where you can be free from worries about who is spying on you. Another aspect is barrier-free access to at least the censored and monitored internet that you and I use every day.

Important initiatives in the area of barrier-free universal internet access are Wireless Community Networks. Most community wifi projects use a mesh architecture, which also helps against the problems of centralized blocking and spying on the internet, but here we're mostly interested in the barrier-free access they provide. Leaders in this area are also for instance Estonia (the country), and the EFF-backed Open Wireless movement.

Internet in Turkey

Although it would already be pretty cool to bring open wifi to for instance Oranienplatz in Berlin (and I'm still hoping the local Pirate Party branch will put this into their election program one day), for the pilot installation of "Wifi 4 Change", we chose a (predominantly) Kurdish village in the South-Eastern part of Turkey.

In Turkey, you have to burocratically link your mobile phone to your passport or residence permit. As a digital nomad, you can't just get a prepaid SIM card and use your own phone, like you would in other countries. I'm not sure exactly what the government does with this information of which mobile device belongs to which citizen.

When connecting to the wifi network at Starbucks or Caffè Nero, the hotspot service requires you to log in with your Facebook account, giving it access to the birthdays of all your Facebook friends. Again, I'm not sure what this hotspot provider does with this information, maybe they are under some government requirement to identify each user up to the point where all internet activity can eventually be linked to a passport number.

Quite a lot of services are also blocked in all of Turkey, including some of them because they criticize the government. It's nowhere near the government brainwashing you will see in for instance Malaysia, but still, when you connect to the internet from anywhere in Turkey, the government puts itself inbetween you and the content they don't want you to see.

Of course, a big worry when setting up open wifi, is if the bill payer will be held responsible for any crimes committed through that connection. Previously I had been thinking with François about how you could use a Tor relay to make sure no activity would be traced back to the specific open connection. At the same time this would provide a more free internet access than the local standard. It would require a lot of engineering and testing however, and would have a cost in terms of connection speed. So for this pilot, we decided that our priority was to just provide normal, run-of-the-mill, Turkish censored internet.

Permission from local and national government

While working at Yazane, a coworking space in Istanbul, I discussed the idea to do this wifi pilot with people there, and they said it would be easy to get local government on our side, especially if we would stay out of any political issues (presumably referring to the Kurdish-Turkish conflict). They quoted a successful community project in Van, HADD, which helps minorities to build a better future for themselves through traditional weaving workshops.

In Turkey, if you provide internet access (for instance, when you run a coworking space), you need to record the IP addresses your users connect to, and keep these logs for 6 months. One approach to our project would be to say we're opening a sort of internet cafe, something just like a cafe where wifi is offered.

Another consideration was that if we work together with the mayor of the village, we could get official permissions to, for instance, put up wifi repeaters on lantern posts. Cooperation with local government could also bring us some help from their side, for instance, they could install a public computer in the neighborhood cafe.

Involvement of the villagers

It turned out that the social structure of the village had an influence on where we could install antennas. After all, the best places are on roofs of houses or on balconies where they're protected from rain. This will only work if the people are enthusiastic about cooperating.

In the end, we did not speak to the mayor, but we did involve his candidate successor. This helped to get some local help with the project, and hopefully the people who helped install the antennas will also maintain them, and repair or replace them if they break.

The uplink

The first thing you need to bring internet somewhere, is an uplink. There are basically four types: fiber, copper (ADSL), cellular (3G), and satellite. They deserve preference in that order, based on their price, bandwidth, reliability, and latency. In an affluent urbanized area you would probably always go for wired, where copper is the most common, and fiber is still relatively rare, at least outside countries like Japan.

You can research your options for the uplink before you travel to the location; if you don't speak the language of the country (as was the case for us in Turkey), Google Translate can be used to translate the websites of the country's internet providers (just past the website's address as the text to be translated). It helps of course if you have a local contact there, and you might even be able to get the uplink sorted out before you travel, so that you can spend all your time on location on installing the antennas.

In our case, we had a friend of ours living in the village, which was our main reason to choose this specific village in the first place. There are about 50 houses there, in an area of about 200x300 meters. Our friend could not convince TTnet (Turkey's national ISP) to lay a cable all the way to her house though, since it was too far from the main road. When we arrived, we were luckily able to pick a house which was much closer to the entrance of the village, and the installers came the next day to install and activate the connection.

What the ADSL installers said

One thing about this village though, is that it's quite a harsh environment for things like that: the desert brings strong sand winds and temperature differences. But the environment in this village is also harsh on a social level: physical objects which you don't actively protect, may eventually get stolen - maybe by bored kids who want some pocket money, maybe by people who can't find work and are in debt because they had to buy food. This was one thing we hadn't really anticipated to that extent.

We had just installed the first antenna together with the candidate mayor, who still couldn't believe we had come all the way from Berlin to their tiny village in the desert, to work on this for free. With a small group of locals we were enthusiastically scouting for a good location to install the second antenna, when the uplink installers from TTnet showed up. There was an exciting "The A-Team" athmosphere ("I love it when a good plan comes together!"), which quickly disappeared when the TTnet technicians did not even get out of their car.

They said they couldn't hang up the necessary wires there because they would just get stolen for their copper value, and sold to an "eskiye" (second-hand street vendor). In fact, they had tried to wire up the local medical center several times during the last 5 years, and each time the cable had been stolen again. The only two points to which a telephone cable existed was the mayor's house (directly at the main road), and the gas station across the road.

There was no way we could convince them, and they are the only telephone company in Turkey, so that really smashed our hopes. They drove off, and there we were...

Researching alternatives

The next day I went to an internet cafe to find out whether we could maybe get satellite access, and how much that would cost. After some comparison, my conclusion was that it would be possible to set up a satellite uplink, but probably much easier to get a 3G uplink.

Unfortunately, we didn't have enough time to buy a Huawei D-100 or similar mobile hotspot device, which receives a 3G signal and sends out a wifi signal. Such devices don't seem to be available over-the-counter in the region. I don't know if that's because Turkish law only allows mobile operators to sell them. I had had similar difficulty in the past trying to buy a 3G stick in Istanbul. In any case, since they are devices that take a SIM card, you would have to buy them with a Turkish passport or a Turkish residency permit.

However, of the four 3G providers I compared, two offered a plan that includes mobile hotspot device, and we picked Vodafone because unlike Turkcell, they actually had one in stock at the nearest shop. :)

The downside of the device we got was that it didn't have an ethernet out, so we couldn't link up more antennas to it. In the end, it also turned out we got the 7.2Mbps 3G speed, whereas the other device they had in the shop had the newer 21.3Mbps speed. At Turkcell, the Multivinn would have been 43.2Mbps, but although it's advertised at their website, their shops didn't seem to stock it for some reason.

I don't know what the impact of 7/21.3/43.2 Mbps is on actual speed during use. The plan we got is limited to 6Gb per month anyway, so in a way, if the uplink is not superfast, this may actually have the desired effect that people don't watch their videos in HD. :)

However, if we had known beforehand that we would have to use a 3G uplink, then we could have bought a Huawei D-100 beforehand, and just plug in a wifi stick on one end, and an ethernet cable on the other. Consider this a tip, if you plan to do a project like this! It would have greatly increased our options when getting the 3G contract.

Connecting the access points

We brought three access point devices with us, two times the EW-7228APn from Edimax, and one TL-WR841N from TP-Link.

These are not ADSL routers, they don't have a modem built in. They only connect ethernet with wifi. Both cost about 25 euros and can act as both an access point (creating a wifi access point at the end of an ethernet cable), and also as a wifi antenna (AP client mode), receiving a wifi signal and passing connectivity down the ethernet cable. We hung the Vodafone device high on the wall of one of the buildings, where it would have a big open view of the sky to receive the 3G signal, and also a free view of the open space in the village, so that its own wifi signal comes as far as possible.

Next to it, we hung up one access point in AP-client mode, and got an ethernet cable (straight, not crossed), down to one of the ground-floor apartments in the same building. This was enough to have wifi in that entire building, and up to about 50 meters onto the open space around the building.

We had hoped to get more like 150 meters range, so that we could install our third access point device in repeater mode at about 100m distance, and thus cover a big chunk of the village area. But I guess these things don't always work as advertised. :)

Therefore we didn't really get to try out the repeater mode of the Edimax devices. It's based on a store-and-forward protocol called WDS.

Impact of the project

It was great to see the people use the free wifi. Most of them have a sort of semi-smartphones; not proper Android devices, but still with a touchscreen, wifi antenna, and Samsung apps. They would generally get some prepaid 3G credit from time to time, to use Facebook or Youtube. So at some level, we brought them something which they already had.

But on another level, the way you use the internet is very different when it's open and free, compared to when you pay through your contract to use a little bit of 3G bandwidth. We cannot yet measure how life in this village will be affected by the presence of free wifi, but we showed the people in the village some of the things we think they can benefit from. We were there for one week, and in the beginning we showed some of them how to use the shift key and the space bar on a computer keyboard. During the last days, they really picked up enthusiasm and were logging in, clicking around, and sending emails from their phones.

Specifically, we helped our friends in this village to set up an e-commerce shop to sell their hand-knitted baby clothes. They are all very good at this, yet they get very little money for weeks of labor when they sell their creations within their own village, which is of course a very small and poor offset market. At the same time, they speak very good German.

Putting this together, we wanted to look for a way to help them sell knitwear in Germany. We helped them research some of the hurdles, like sending goods to Germany in the mail, and receiving money in euros through a paypal account. Much our week in the village was also spent setting up this first e-commerce shop, photographing the products, thinking what prices would be reasonable, and writing good product descriptions. And here's the result: ENB Sisters. Needless to say, if you're somewhere where they could ship to, and still need some good Christmas presents, you should of course check it out and buy something from them! :)

Project costs

We had an unforgettable travel experience, visiting this village for a week. If you are a traveller or a backpacker and enjoy the adventure and joy of meeting new people who live in places that are different from anything you knew before, then that alone will be worth it. Even if your installation fails.

In terms of money we spent, the three access point devices together were 80 euros, the mobile hotspot was 30 euros, when bought together with a one-year contract of 12x 10 euros, and we got the 20m ethernet cable locally at a rural electrics shop (including crimping the connectors onto it, and of course a glass of Turkish tea while we waited) for 10 euros. So total 80+30+120+10=240 euros for installation and first year of operation.

Think about that. What charity project can be completed for under 250 euros? If you were to crowd-fund this - put a video up on IndieGoGo or Kickstarter raising money for it, how long would it take before your friends and Twitter followers would have reached the target amount? You could even propose to do a journey with 6 villages for 1500 euros. Just putting some ideas in your head, here. ;)

In hindsight, lessons learned

If you're thinking right now that you might actually enjoy doing a project like this yourself (which I hope you are!), here are some things we ourselves would do differently next time. First of all, you need to be careful when selecting your village. We learned that it helped a lot that we already knew people there, where we could stay, who could translate for us, and who could introduce us to the other people in the village. A project like this has technical, organizational, social, and also political aspects, which all fit together. However, you will probably be able to find some help from for instance the hostel where you're staying nearby, or people you meet on the way. Another thing to keep in mind is that wifi is probably useless to people who don't have more basic things like electricity or running hot and cold water.

Check out for instance charity:water, and consider which impact you want to make. On the other hand, I think projects like Hole-in-the-Wall, One Laptop per Child and Kiva help to highlight what can be achieved if people in remote areas are plugged in to the location-independent opportunities that the internet brings (both in education and in e-commerce).

In our case we found the village before we found the project: we tried to think what we could do for this village, and came up with installing wifi, as an experiment. Joining an existing charity project is often harder than you would think it would be. We wanted to try something out by ourselves. The realization that installing wifi is so ridiculously cheap, when compared to building a drinkwater well or a school building, made us decide to take on the "wifi 4 change" approach, pack a few access point devices into our backpacks, and face the adventure of personal-scale charity!

In hindsight, on the technical side, we would have brought a Huawei D-100 device or similar, connecting a standard wifi-stick to the end of a standard ethernet cable, that would have saved us one wifi device which we now had to use as an AP-client, introducing an unnecessary wifi-to-wifi hop. We were planning to buy another 3 WDS-capable devices locally, to cover the rest of the area of the village. But it proved harder than we thought to find good places to install them.

You can only install a repeater on someone's roof if the people living there will also benefit from it. In our case, one of the points we needed was a house where the people weren't at home at the time. Also, a repeater in a place where a kid could climb up and steal it (like a lamp post or a low roof) will also probably not last long, unless you attach it well. In our case, this greatly limited our ability to create better area coverage.

A good thing to try out next time would also be to bring two or more directional radio antennas, to set up a point-to-point link. These can cover much larger distances (but be aware you may need to get a permit to install them, because their more powerful radiation beam can cause signal interference).


People will tell you they don't believe it will work, that it's not possible, that open wifi will lead to a tragedy of the commons with people taking more than their share of bandwidth for useless purposes, that you should only give people things they actually ask for themselves, that people in remote parts of the world don't need our Western, globalization-oriented technology, and that if you really want to change the world, you should either contribute to a project which gives people something they actually need (food, drinking water, healthcare, schools, etcetera), or start with yourself and improve the world in your own home environment.

Some of this advice may be right, I don't know. Other people always know better what you should be doing instead. In the end, you have listen to the advice prior to taking your decision, then pick your battle, and go for it. From that point on you should be selective in what advice you accept, and believe in your own plan. For us, in this case, and hopefully also for you next time you plan to travel somewhere, this plan is to install Wifi 4 Change.