Despite tremendous growth in internet-capable mobile device adoption, Internet usage and access to data is limited in Africa by prohibitive costs and unequal coverage. Mobile data is expensive relative to the income of African communities, and costs prevent rural and low-income urban people from using internet-based communication to their full benefit.
Our research has shown that most communications in these communities is with users within the same locality. Yet for the most popular applications, including WhatsApp and Facebook, messages destined for neighbours across the street must first travel the world over expensive and constrained data links.
The iNethi solution
iNethi (‘nethi’ translates to ‘network’ in isiXhosa) provides a community-based services and content sharing platform to take advantage of this locality of interest. Networks deploying iNethi are also able to provide lower cost access by aggregating demand and purchasing bulk backhaul and provisioning Internet using the ISP services provided by iNethi such as billing, accounting and monitoring services.
iNethi seeks to build community ownership into the services and content that are provided to a local network. Decisions about choices of services and content are made collectively
typically through workshops with community members.
The following are the core principles of iNethi:
Your content is secure, reliably stored and belongs to you.
Your content is publicly visible only if explicitly marked as public.
You can freely access and share content anywhere on your local network
Content should adhere to a community agreed User Acceptance Policy
At the technical core of iNethi is a cloudlet server with modular docker containers. These containers provide local services (that don’t require Internet) such as chat, social networking, education, video streaming, file sharing and even ISP services for generating vouchers and user accounting. New services and content will continuously to be added by developers and the community and typically run as web applications which allow them to run on many different types of devices and operating systems.
All services on iNethi will use single sign on authentication that doesn’t rely on an Internet connection. So there will be no need to remember multiple usernames and passwords for all the iNethi services. Multiple iNethi Cloudlets can synchronise content between each other. Smart algorithms will detect movement of users and preemptively synchronise content for these mobile users.
The entire system can run on a Mini PC with internal or network attached storage that scales with the number of users on the network. For example 2TB should more than suffice for about 1000 users being offered 2GB of free storage. It is possible to use a micro-PC such as a Raspberry PI or EspressoBin for mobile iNEthi units that serve 10-100 users in contexts like taxis or festivals.
The local network could be a large community network, University campus, a commercial WISP or even a cruise ship requiring some local services, but we see iNethi dovetailing well with community networks due to the objectives and philosophy being so well aligned.
Current project status
The flagship iNethi deployment is currently taking place in Ocean View, a township located in the Southern Peninsula of Cape Town, South Africa, with a population of approximately 28,000. This is a community with high unemployment, where users spend a large fraction of their income (up to 20%) on data and voice services.
We have partnered with OVCOMM Dynamic cooperative, a community mesh network providing Internet access and services to the community and rural mountain side using the iNethi platform. We currently have 4 mesh nodes installed and will connect another 10 nodes over the coming months. We will also be deploying a small cell LTE base station connected to iNethi services to achieve widespread coverage over Ocean View.
We currently have several free local open source services that we have tested for value and useability with the community, including social networking (Diaspora), chat (RocketChat), file-sharing (NextCloud), and web authoring (WikiFundi and WordPress) running on the iNethi platform. We also have some high value offline educationalcontent such as Khan Academy, TED talks and a number of Wiki services available. We also have Voucher-based Internet available via WiFi access points at R10($0.70)/GB. Current access options for users are pay-as you go Internet which costs approximately R150($10.50) for a 1GB package and R29($2) for a 100MB package (R290($20) / GB)
With an average user spend of R50 ($3.60) per user per month and a projected user base in the second year of operation (from 2020), reaching 400 users accessing the network from 20 mesh nodes, we predict that the cooperative can be sustainable after its first year of operation and reach a monthly profit of approximately R28,000 ($2074). This income can pay for ongoing expansion, maintenance and salaries. Income from selling Internet will subsidise provisioning of the free local services on the iNethi platform but users could also be charged for some local services such as extra storage when going beyond their free quota.
What the grant will be used for
By the end of the funding cycle, we expect iNethi to be a demonstrably effective and sustainable community resource in Ocean View. The purpose of this grant will be to make our service offerings more robust, and package our offering such that it is easy for new communities to adopt the technology quickly.
The grant will allow us to focus on:
- Completing development of an iNethi platform API that provides messaging alerts from any iNethi service, a single sign on service for all iNethi services, payment for services, and synchronisation between cloudlets as well as backup of critical data off-site.
- Providing a repository of iNethi containerised services on the iNethi web site which communities can pull from and contribute to.
- Engaging with the community to develop and document business models for sustainable development of services for low-income communities, learning from the deployment in Ocean View.
- Developing blockchain based payments for access to iNethi services in partnership with Ammbr
- Completing all the training material for developers that want to develop new services using the iNethi APIs as well as training material for community members that want to use the content authoring services in iNethi.