Monday, October 8, 2012

Mobile Broadband Internet for Palestine

One of the hot political topics between Israel and Palestine is 3G frequencies.

According to ITU and Geneva convention, all commercial mobile frequencies on the occupied Territory belong to the Palestinians. According to Oslo Agreement/Paris Protocol, Palestinians are entitled to approximately 30% of the frequencies. Currently, Israel gives only 4% of the spectrum to Palestinian mobile operators, excluding those frequencies that are commonly used for 3G internet.

Regardless of involvement of Tony Blair and Middle East Quartet, until today, Israel is unwilling to grant 3G frequencies to be used by Palestinian mobile providers. I dedicated another article elaborating on a possible commercial workaround using a MVNO licence, and another article on Israels economic benefits through the occupation, and why the status quo is unlikely to change.

Assuming that there will be neither soon an end to the occupation, nor an Israeli MVNO licence issued for a Palestinian mobile operator, this post is dedicated to look into technical work-arounds that don't need any political or regulatory interference. We will rely on the unlicensed frequencies of Wireless LAN in the approaches presented here.

Existing Wifi Internet Providers

Of course, I am not the first to look into the open frequencies of Wifi for internet service provision. There are several Palestinian companies (Coolnet, Globalcom, Yalla,...) who offer wireless internet to commercial, residential as well as mobile clients. One drawback they have in common is the limited coverage. The number of installed access points is very limited, and complete coverage of cities, let alone rural areas is far from reality. With the limited range of Wifi compared to 3G, a complete coverage would be way too costly, because too many access points are needed.
Globalcom is already experimenting with the bullet2hp meshing product of Ubiquity which uses meshing technique to extend the coverage for Globalcom customers only.

What is Wireless meshing? Follow this Link

Instead of meshing networks that are tied to one particular internet provider, we want to look into the option of establishing a non-commercial community-based mesh network with maximum coverage which is open for everybody to use and to sell uplink bandwidth...

Freifunk and The Art of Meshing

There is citizen's initiative called Freifunk, sparked originally in Berlin to mount optimized Wifi antennae onto residential roofs creating a meshing network that spans across wide areas of the city. A wireless mesh works independently of any commercial network, out of control of governments, and very resilient setup thanks to intelligent meshing. With a good antenna and eye contact you can bridge up to 10km+ with a single Wifi connection.
To make network deployment cheap and convenient, volunteers developed firmware for state-of-the art Wifi access points, to turn them into a part of the meshing network, which automatically finds the optimal routing between two nodes.
Also people developed cheap hardware called "Mesh potato" that you just need to plug into the wall, and it will automatically become part of a wireless mesh.
As a nice extra feature, you can connect a normal telephone to your VOIP-enabled mesh potato, giving entrepreneurs elsewhere in the mesh the opportunity to run IP-telephony micro-businesses using an Asterisk server and a phone line in their homes.
Another commercial producer of Wireless meshing nodes is Firetide.
For off-grid areas, you can look into this project for Solar/Wind-driven meshing nodes: Argus

Smartphones in the Mesh: Open Garden

One of the core developers of the famous Bittorrent filesharing network recently received 800k$ funding for his new startup business called Open Garden. Open Garden turns iOS and Android smartphones into a part of a mesh. Currently, this Wifi meshing software needs root access to your telephone, so you will have to ask your local dealer to "root" your phone. If you have good IT skills, you might want to try to root your phone yourself. Search on youtube for your phone together with the keyword "root", and you will find tutorials.

Mesh Potatoes Running on Car Batteries

Unfortunately, Wifi tethering consumes a lot of battery from your smartphone, therefore people might want to avoid having it switched on all the time. The mesh however can only provide good coverage if there are enough active nodes spread across the city.

Car batteries have much better capacities than smartphone batteries. You could use the existing mesh potato hardware, with a modified power adaptor to suit the 12V car battery, and then mount a long-range car roof antenna on your car. The power adaptor would need to make sure your battery is never completely discharged. The benefit of these meshing nodes in cars is an improved coverage, especially in the area where the driver left the car, so he will directly benefit from his contribution to the meshing network. In addition to the car, he could of course mount such a device on his domestic roof.

Citizen and Restaurants as Uplinks

Of course, you will want to communicate not only with other members of the meshing network, but also with the outside world, so you need uplinks to the Internet in your network. Some people may be volunteering to share their home DSL connection to the mesh, or other people who sit in the restaurant connected to their Wifi, may be sharing this connection into the mesh. To get good connectivity, you need to find enough people to share their uplink bandwidth to the internet for free. 


Another semi-legal option to improve the uplink bandwidth can be achieved through a so-called "war-driver". If you open Wireless on your smartphone or laptop, you will notice that the majority of residential Wifi access points in Palestine are still using the insecure WEP encryption technique. With a set of wardriving equipment (a car, a laptop with car charger, a backtrack DVD, and a decent Wifi adapter with long range antenna), you could gather a list of wireless access points, their location and with some patience also their WEP password. Such an access point list could be used to improve the internet uplink of any meshing network. Note that you are probably crossing the line of legality here, even though there is probably weak enforcement. However, if the traffic on domestic DSL lines with WEP encrypted access points is significantly increasing, DSL internet providers, who have to buy their bandwidth from Israel, may consider providing their clients with WPA2 encrypted access points and randomized keys (as it is common in Europe), which are believed to be secure against wardrivers. This will again leave the mesh with a lack of uplinks. So the long-term effect of this wardriving exercise may be just generally increased security of domestic WLANs.

So What is the Business Case?

It seems realistic, with some citizen initiatives, to build a meshing network with decent coverage in most populated areas of Palestine. This will require technically skilled volunteers to get involved, and some form of campaign to spread the use of mesh potatoes among households.

Regarding the Internet uplink, it remains unclear whether the community is willing to share sufficient bandwidth for free into the mesh. This is where a business case could be developed around internet uplink bandwidth, as well as VOIP telephony.

The mesh potato provides a connector for a standard telephone, which connects through the mesh to a VOIP server. The business case of telco micro-enterprises running an Asterisk VOIP server in the mesh is described here.

Also uplink data can be sold for a few cents or agorot. You could act as a middle man between the mobile clients and the established internet providers of Palestine, creating a highly competitive market for uplink data, because end customers are no longer tied to a specific provider over months.
This will require micropayments, partnering with PalPay for example. You could also contact Open Garden developers, whether they are willing to integrate the authentication and payment mechanism into their mobile app. Then the established internet providers in Palestine can sell their uplink bandwith on a spot market into the mesh, and you resell it, adding a tiny and transparent profit margin, to your end customers.

While Israeli 3G customers are still paying up to 1 Shekel per Megabyte, Palestinian Wifi meshing users could soon be paying just a few agorot for the same.

Political Leverage of Technical Solutions

Israel's Shin Bet secret service is using to large extent SIGINT (singnal intelligence) for gathering information about terrorism suspects. The widespread use of cellphones for communications is an extremely helpful source of information, because it provides comprehensive information (even more comprehensive than facebook) on who communicates with whom, and about the location of people.

If more people switch to using decentralized Wifi meshing infrastructure, instead of using centrally managed infrastructures of Paltel, Jawal and Watania, the data quality of SIGINT gathered by Shin Bet will decrease dramatically. Concerned Shin Bet management might start to lobby at the Israeli government to give a larger share of mobile frequencies, including 3G frequencies to Palestinians, to encourage Palestinian users to revert to centralized telecommunications infrastructure of Jawal, Watania and Paltel. The Palestinian economy would greatly benefit from the availability of these frequencies.

Assuming that Shin Bet has better lobbying leverage to the Israeli government than Tony Blair has, finally Israel might be willing to give Palestinians access to their mobile frequencies.

See Also: