Recently, friend and fellow co-conspirator Jay Cousins proposed a unique opportunity; join a diverse group of makers on an island in Upper Egypt to prototype a unique vision for something one might call “Society 2.0”. To provide some context, Jay has been active over the last several months with his Nubian partners Darsh and Ashraf in developing the Nubialin project—a contextually relevant iteration of the icehubs model. Situated in a protected cove on the west bank of Elephantine Island, a Nubian village in Aswan without cars or paved roads, Nubialin has been variously referred to as “an experiment in good living” and “an exploration between communities and cultures.”
To many visitors, Egyptian and non-Egyptian alike, Nubialin is quite simply a taste of paradise.
It may appear idyllic (and it is, mostly) but Nubialin and the surrounding community face a unique set of challenges. Aswan’s primary trade was tourism prior to the Egyptian revolution and subsequent unrest. The feluccas and cruise ships idling along the Nile’s banks today are testament to how this industry has been decimated. As a response to this, Nubialin was partly conceived as way to address unemployment in the tourism sector. Experienced felucca captains and local entrepreneurs, Darsh and Ashraf lend their expertise to Nubialin by bridging cultures (they are fluent in Arabic, English and Nubian) and their island roots connect them to their cousins who span greater Nubia. Their understanding of the community, its needs and nuances provide Nubialin with a unique connection point to the village and surrounding area.
“Nubialin represents a chance to prototype a better way to live, to find new ways to develop areas in ways that benefit everyone, and strengthen our shared foundation from the ground up.”
The founders of Nubialin have taken stock of their resources (abundant clean water, no traffic, little air pollution, underutilized land, strong community, multilingualism, diverse trade skills, etc.) and posited the questions, “How can we live well and free without harming the environment? How can we do this in a way that is accessible to everybody regardless of educational or social background?”
The thinking goes that because Elephantine Island doesn’t possess many of the ills that are manifest in other parts of the world, it therefore represents a solid foundation upon which to build a better way of living.
As a functional lab for prototyping sustainable communities, Nubialin offers a forum for likeminded doers to collaborate in developing a social business or project that benefits everyone. Among Jay’s list of challenges and opportunities, one immediately stood out; creating a mesh or other WiFi-based network to service the island. Since I would be based out of Cairo for the month, I jumped at the opportunity to leave the city behind and work for a few days on a technical challenge while spending nights aboard a felucca in the Nile.
A group of interested collaborators formed online in the weeks leading up to the maker festival at Nubialin, and we began researching possible solutions for building a community mesh network. I’d experimented with mesh networks before, both with the Raspberry Pi and OpenWrt-based packages, but had not deployed a mesh network on any large scale. The Raspberry Pi Model A was initially attractive both for its low cost and ability to run on solar power, although they aren’t available anywhere in Aswan. Community mesh networking projects like Commotion are similarly interesting, but the supported devices again don’t reflect the hardware that is available locally. Telecom Egypt network engineer Mostafa Rashad Ali, who is based in Aswan, was our eyes and ears on the ground and confirmed that only a very limited number of consumer devices (a handful of routers and access points by TP-Link, mainly) could be sourced in town.
As with many such projects, the theory and planning that happens in advance often changes radically when the realities on the ground are sized up. Our group began by visiting Darsh’s family home on the north end of Elephantine, where he’d subscribed to a 2Mbps ADSL connection and installed a WiFi antenna on the roof. Darsh had signed up several of his neighbors as subscribers and resold his connectivity to them at an affordable rate through his wireless local area network (WLAN).
Darsh had ambitions to extend his community WLAN to Nubialin, but a thick grove of mango trees prevented the signal from reaching the island’s west bank. Surveying the ground between Darsh’s home and Nubialin, the options for installing mesh nodes (assuming we could find the hardware) appeared limited. We needed to keep costs low, make best use of available resources and most importantly prototype something that could be easily extended.
Considering these factors, we settled on testing an alternative: the humble tin can waveguide antenna.
A man, a plan, a cantenna
Wireless network hackers have been obsessed with pushing bits further and faster for less cost since the 802.11b standard was established. Today, one of the cheapest and most effective devices for this purpose is the cantenna; a DIY directional waveguide antenna made from an open-ended can. Over a clear line of sight, with short antenna cable runs, a can-to-can shot is capable of carrying an 11Mbps link over ten miles (16km) or more. We’d be pointing a directional can at Darsh’s unidirectional antenna over a much shorter distance (less than a kilometer) so it seemed doable.
The original design used a Pringles can, but any metal can such as a soup, juice or other tin can works equally well. The whole thing can typically be made for less than $5 in widely available parts (including found or discarded items), so this fits our community’s needs. Because it reuses what might otherwise become trash, this is a big plus as well.
Knowing little about antenna construction, I found it helpful to start off with a working known good design. With Mostafa Ali’s help, we combed the Aswan souk and found the coaxial cable, CAT-5 network cable, wire and a handful of connectors we’d need for the cantenna probe mount and pigtail. We also picked up a TP-Link access point for 190 Egyptian Pounds (20 Euros) and a slightly cheaper wireless router to provide connectivity to clients at Nubialin. Lacking a can between 3″ and 3 2/3″ in diameter (it was difficult to find either a discarded one or a new canned product of the right size, on short notice) we commandeered the Nubialin communal drinking cup, which was perfect.
The placement of the connector mount in the can is critical—it’s a function of the frequency that the antenna operates at and the diameter of the can used. We carefully drilled our drinking cup at the precise distance from the closed end of the can that corresponded to the 1/4 guide wavelength. Since we couldn’t find a proper N-female chassis mount connector in the souk, we used a coaxial cable fitting and some 5-minute epoxy donated by the Nubialin woodworking shop.
With the probe and pigtail soldered up, we connected the cantenna to our access point and oriented it in the direction of a large cluster of buildings approximately 4km NNE of us on the Nile Corniche. Immediately, 8-9 previously unseen access points became visible. This told us the cantenna worked! However, we still needed to connect to Darsh’s base station and get a signal strong enough to support reliable internet.
Picking up the signal
We faced several obstacles in tuning into Darsh’s signal. First, we mounted the can atop a 3-meter pole (also found in the woodworking area) and fabricated a longer pigtail for it. The signal loss with the longer cable proved too great, so we shortened it and crudely lashed the access point to the pole with twine. Then began the process of roaming the area above Nubialin with the cantenna pole, power for the AP and a well-worn MacBook connected via a CAT-5 patch cable. The early results weren’t promising—the signal strength barely topped a usable level and fluctuated wildly. We needed two things: additional height and a stable platform from which to precisely aim the cantenna.
The next day James Lewis and I found a tripod made from reclaimed pallet wood that looked absolutely purpose-built for us. We swiftly laid claim to it, lashed on the cantenna pole and AP and resumed our search for Darsh’s WiFi signal in a dusty palm clearing. With James reading out the decibel strength, Darsh and I meticulously adjusted the azimuth and declination of cantenna with the wood tripod.
After much experimentation, including climbing the roof of Nubialin, we finally got a stable 75-80% signal with minimal noise that enabled us to connect to Darsh’s base station. We looked on with wild grins as a steady stream of PING requests came back with minimal latency and zero packet loss. Moments later, Darsh loaded a web page for the first time at Nubialin from his AP. The cantenna was a success!
Configuring the wireless router took comparatively little time and soon everyone was jumping on the newly born Nubialinternet access point. A speed test confirmed that we had access to the full 1Mbps allocated to Nubialin.
Implications and future plans
Extending Darsh’s community WLAN to Nubialin gives residents, co-workers and even felucca boats passing near the shoreline the ability to get online, do work and stay connected. Bridging this link to Nubialin also makes it possible to extend the WLAN to the more densely populated southern half of the island using a cantenna, mesh or other other wireless network topology. Most importantly, because the community was directly involved in building and troubleshooting the system at every step, the cantenna knowledge is now part of Elephantine.
Mostafa Ali was so impressed by the cantenna that he plans to build more of them to connect other parts of Aswan. I’ll return later this year, insha’Allah, to see how Nubialin has evolved and adapted this technology for the greater good.
Full resolution photos from this post are CreativeCommons Licensed and available here.