“The Village Telco aims to provide affordable voice and data services for the billions of people who are currently unconnected to either a phone or the Internet. By lowering the cost of entry for users, it also seeks to make calling and access to the Internet cheaper for existing users. But it will not only offer affordable access but put the power to provide it in the hands of local communities, creating a new generation of communications entrepreneurs in developing countries”.
The Village Telco will provide a “plug-and-play” low cost voice and data service delivered using an inexpensive, fixed mesh Wi-Fi delivery system called the Mesh Potato.
For the consumer, the basic service will give the customer pre-paid local, national and international calling and Internet. Other services like SMS and voice message boxes can be added. It will both provide a service where none exists and be a complement to mobile services. Limited mobility exists as an option but will not necessarily be deployed in order to avoid head-on confrontations with powerful mobile operators.
For entrepreneurs in developing countries, it offers the opportunity to start a business that will provide them with a livelihood and contribute to the development of their communities. Again, the network required to deliver it will be “plug-and-play” and be robust enough to withstand a variety of challenging circumstances.
For the developers of the concept, it is the opportunity to create a global network of low-cost voice and data providers.
Whilst there are a range of other Wi-Fi mesh products on the market, the Mesh Potato has two features that make it stand out: 1) It combines voice and data seamlessly; and 2) It will be a “plug and play” product that will allow consumers to use it more or less “out-of-the-box”.
Mesh networking is a type of networking wherein each node in the network may act as an independent router, regardless of whether it is connected to another network or not. It allows for continuous connections and reconfiguration around broken or blocked paths by “hopping” from node to node until the destination is reached. A mesh network whose nodes are all connected to each other is a fully connected network. Mesh networks differ from other networks in that the component parts can all connect to each other via multiple hops, and they generally are not mobile. Mesh networks can be seen as one type of ad hoc network.
Mesh networks are self-healing: the network can still operate when one node breaks down or a connection goes bad. As a result, the network may typically be very reliable, as there is often more than one path between a source and a destination in the network.
Voice over Internet Protocol
Voice over Internet Protocol (Voice over IP, VoIP) is a general term for a family of methodologies, communication protocols, and transmission technologies for delivery of voice communications and multimedia sessions over Internet Protocol (IP) networks, such as the Internet. Other terms frequently encountered and often used synonymously with VoIP are IP telephony, Internet telephony, voice over broadband (VoBB), broadband telephony, and broadband phone.
Internet telephony refers to communications services — voice, fax, SMS, and/or voice-messaging applications — that are transported via the Internet, rather than the public switched telephone network (PSTN). The steps involved in originating an VoIP telephone call are signaling and media channel setup, digitization of the analog voice signal, optionally compression, packetization, and transmission as Internet Protocol (IP) packets over a packet-switched network. On the receiving side similar steps reproduce the original voice stream.
VoIP systems employ session control protocols to control the set-up and tear-down of calls as well as audio codecs which encode speech allowing transmission over an IP network as digital audio via an audio stream. Codec use is varied between different implementations of VoIP (and often a range of codecs are used); some implementations rely on narrowband and compressed speech, while others support high fidelity stereo codecs.
The current Mesh Potato is an 802.11bg mesh router with a single FXS port and one 10/100Mbit Ethernet port. Adjacent Mesh Potatoes automatically form a peer-to-peer network, relaying telephone calls without landlines or cell-phone towers. The Mesh Potato hardware and software is open. The power, Ethernet and FXS ports are robust in order to deal with developing-world conditions like static electricity, lightning, bad power and accidental abuse. It comes in a weatherproof box for outdoor mounting and costs about the same as any other Wi-Fi router.
An analogue phone connects to the Mesh Potato via the FXS port. FXS (Foreign eXchange Station) is a telephone interface that supplies power, dial tone and generates ringing voltage. When you make a phone call, your Mesh Potato talks to the Potato down the street, which talks to the next Potato, and eventually to the destination. The mesh network can be augmented via backbone links and connected to the rest of the world using VoIP trunks.
The development team plan to do extensive network testing with the existing Mesh Potato and develop a similar next generation device with an 802.11n chip. This will increase the performance of the Mesh Potato, making it somewhere between 2-4 times faster and at least double the range of the device.
One server is needed to provide billing and dashboard services for the VillageTelco. This can be run on a standard laptop computer or you can go for a more high-end server for better redundancy. The server part consists of several software elements.
A2Billing combined with Asterisk is a full featured telecom platform and softswitch providing converged services, with self contained billing (pre or post-paid), reporting and statistics for IP and TDM based voice networks and can be configured to supply a wide range of services, rate calls, prepare and send out invoices, as well as accept payments via a number of payment service providers.
The A2Billing solution comprises of the following components:
- Server: The computer to run the system.
- Line Interface Cards: The Digium hardware (optional)to connect to the TDM network (PRI, BRI, Analogue)
- Linux: The base operating system
- Asterisk: The telephony engine
- Apache: The web server
- MySQL/Postgresql: The back end database
- A2Billing: The Billing engine handling Authentication, Authorisation and Accounting.
Building on the innovative research efforts and tireless support of the Wireless Africa group at the Meraka Institute of the CSIR, the sometimes terrifying growth of the Scarborough Wireless Users Group and tools developed by the Open Mesh team Afrimesh provides a simple management dashboard helping network operators create and sustain resilient communications networks with a minimum of fuss.
- Powerful mesh network routing with B.A.T.M.A.N.
- Dynamic GIS visualization of your mesh on OpenStreetMap maps.
- Plan your network using the terrain elevation map.
- Visualize live health&traffic information for any mesh node.
- Keep inventory of your network devices.
- Monitor the health&usage of your Internet gateway.
- Monitor live network accounting information from pmacct.
- View network status & log messages in realtime.
- Customer management interface featuring FreeRADIUS support.
- Customer authentication featuring coova-chilli support.
- Online help and live chat support.
- Intelligent configuration assistance.
- Build and manage mesh networks even without an Internet connection.
- Now supports the VillageTelco Mesh Potato.
This is the glue, making Afrimesh, A2billing and the Mesh network work together. It gathers data from the network, provisioning the MeshPotatoes and make sure everything runs smoothly.
Mesh potatoes can be deployed from two units and you can make calls between them. You can then add more units to the network one at a time. You will be able to make calls and can have a closed network between the units.
Deploy the MeshPotato for telephony and add a SIP Provider or PSTN connection to the A2Billing server. This will allow for free calls between the units and cheaper international calls.
Using the MeshPotato to provide Internet to the Village. The Internet traffic goes out through a common gateway. The community needs to pay for an Internet connection through an Internet Service Provider and share the costs between its members.
Combined Internet and Telephony installation
Deploy MeshPotatoes and use it both for Internet and telephony for the Village. You connect an Internet gateway for shared broadband for the users and telephony connection to call international.