Open source and open hardware router for community networks

Client:

EyeSeeTea presented a proposal in partnership with the University of Western Cape (South Africa) to the FIRE Africa Grant. The funds for FIRE Africa grants come from multiple sources like the AFRINIC, Sida, IDRC and the Internet Society or Google. We were awarded the grant in 2016.

Background:

The University of the Western Cape (UWC) has been researching on low-cost solutions to reduce the cost of communications in rural
areas since 2003. Due to the inequality in South Africa, there are rural communities living on average individual incomes below 2 USD
a day. Still, population considers important spending on mobile communications and, on average, they spend 22% of their disposable
income in these services (income that could go to food, education, health, etc). However, this high proportion of the disposable income
does only translate in a very constrained set of mobile phone services. Regarding data, only 22.2% reports using Internet on a monthly basis, and those who does report a very constrained use. In order to propose a solution to this market inefficiency, UWC partnered with Mankosi, a rural community in the Eastern Cape province, to create Zenzeleni Networks Mankosi (ZNM) in 2013. ZNM initially focused on the provision of voice services and a WiFi mesh network consisting of 12 routers was deployed in Mankosi by community members with the assistance of students from UWC. From analogue phones connected to the WiFi routers, intranet VoIP calls could be made for free, and breakout calls could be made at half the price offered by the Mobile Network Operators. Hence, this work has led to establishing the first
bottom-up operator fitting in the South African regulatory framework, setting a legal precedent for other bottom-up operators to follow.
 

Problem:

Community Networks have been depending since their inception on modifying existing off-the-shelf routers to adapt them to their particular needs. The impossibility of replacing pre-installed software in off-the-shelf routers is a show-stopper for every community that has deployed a network, as well as for every community that could do so in the near future. For this reason, the University of the Western Cape and the partner organizations in this project deem it necessary to solve this issue in a way that will let the communities regain control over the hardware platforms they need to continue developing their self-provided communication networks projects.
 

Solution:

The Libre Router project designs and produce a high performance multi-radio wireless router targeted at Community Networks needs. Global South reality and that of Latin America. EyeSeeTea joined this great initiative to empower community networks by giving them an open software and open hardware router that could be decoupled from market needs.

New open hardware and open software wireless router especially customized for community networks building, with a new power-saving strategy based on our design. We also developed a new app with a hybrid technology that controls de phone communications informing the user about the cost and letting her/him to choose the cheapest strategy (either via the community network or the GSM network depending on his phone company).

The characteristics of this router allowed for a big improvement in performance in mesh networks due to the use of dual 5Ghz radios. This important characteristic is only available on the market at a much higher price range. The chipset used for the router was selected with stability and robust support in mind. Main characteristics of the LibreMesh firmware include:

– Dual layer dynamic routing
– Auto-configuration of nodes in the mesh network
– Real-time mapping of nodes and links
– Web interface for basic tasks like antenna aiming
– Dual stack IPv4/IPv6
– Auto-discovery and sharing of Internet connections

More Info:

LibreRouter