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Steve Song has spent the past two years as a fellow at the Shuttleworth Foundation, looking at ways to lower the costs of communications infrastructures. On Day 1 of the Tech4Africa conference in Johannesburg, he introduced the fruits of his labour to a captive audience, the Mesh Potato, a low cost wireless mesh device that you can also plug into a normal phone to provide cheap and simple connectivity.
During his presentation, Song made a passionate plea for lowering the costs of communication in Africa, arguing that innovation will never take place until, in the words of Clay Shirky, we “lessen the cost of failure”. In most African countries, fifty percent of disposable income is spent on mobile services, which dramatically restricts the segment of people who can afford to innovate.
By combining a low-cost wireless Access Point (AP) that is running mesh networking software with an Analog Telephony Adapter (ATA), mesh potatoes automatically connect with each other, forming a “cloud” of Mesh Potatoes. Each Mesh Potato relays the phone calls for other Mesh Potatoes, greatly extending the range of the network. When you plug an ordinary telephone into one Mesh Potato, you can instantly make a phone call to any other Mesh Potato on the network.
The project will also allow small business or community projects to provide voice and internet services, using a Village Telco Entrepreneur server — which combines network management, upstream voice connectivity and pay-as-you-go billing management.
Steve Song introduced this breakthrough device, which goes to market in early 2011, by recounting the history of the development of the internet in the USA, where AOL, MSN and various other organisations created “walled gardens” where the customer experience was very segmented. He drew a parallel with the ways that the big three mobile service providers in South Africa operate, and lobbied that it was time for change and to open it up.
Work on the Mesh Potato at the Shuttleworth Foundation began by hacking a Linksys router that ran the Linux operating system. After working for months trying to adapt devices, one member of the development team, Australian David Rowe, suggested they should simply build their own device. Song described this moment as an “epiphany” that altered the course of the project. Work on this new phase began in June 2008 and one year later, they had a prototype Mesh Potato built and ready to test.
The Mesh Potato is a completely open source project, and is easily scaleable. Song foresees a future when open source telephony software and hardware can be quickly deployed in disaster zones, where NGOs can build networks that connect whole villages and where entrepreneurs can bring a whole new level of economic activity to remote areas of Africa.
The device is built to be hardy and weather resistant and fit for deployment in hostile terrain and once it scales, should be available for less than $100.