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APZUnet – Probably the biggest public WiFi hotspot in Malawi

November 13th, 2012

For Abwenzi Pa Za Umoyo (APZU), Partners In Health’ sister organization in Malawi, technology is playing its role in delivering health services and improving communities. IT services like access to computers and especially communication gets more important. Even (or especially) in rural places like the south-eastern District of Neno.

As one basic principle everybody gets access to the network – either government, APZU employees and to some extend private people. Of course this has the downside of potentially hurting commercial Internet cafes as many people throughout Neno Boma get Internet access for free. But a (relatively) fast and working Internet has a number of impacts on the work. Medical research, easy communication, and heck, sometimes it simply entertains…

Over the past few years the communication needs were growing rapidly. We have tried multiple approaches for the local network and the Internet connectivity and went through a couple of design generations. Usually just to realize that the reality was outgrowing our solution.

With the current network in Neno we are probably running the biggest public WiFi hotspot in Malawi. With a coverage of a half square mile and up to 120 unique systems utilizing the network on average.

Currently the system combines a couple of freely available software components together with carefully selected, inexpensive commodity hardware and 1.5 local engineers to keep everything up and running. As we have gained quite a bit of experience we feel that the current system will scale-up even beyond our expectations for the next 2 or 3 years. But TIA, you never know what’s coming next.

Putting down all the details is a little bit too much for this post, so I only provide stuff for the buzzword bingo. Get in touch if you want to learn more about it:

  • Traffic accounting
  • User management
  • Local caching (among others esp. for Windows Updates)
  • Segmented network
  • Content filtering
  • Real-time monitoring
  • Bandwidth management

Of course such a system still costs money, but it seems well worth the price if the system is designed carefully. And as most of the components are free and the hardware costs are minimal, it basically comes down to the costs for the sat link (granted still fricking expensive in rural Africa) and your expertise.

Categories: Misc
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