Why sites go down
Rhizomatica has recently moved into a phase of critical reflection about what we do. Specifically, we are looking to share not only our successes, but also the challenges we face, how the affect us and what we are trying to do about them. The idea and practice of local or alternative networks is not new, but is a space where we think there need to be some hard conversations about how to expand them and make them more resilient. This starts with being honest about our own shortcomings and the difficulties that exist when interfacing with the traditional or corporate infrastructure that we rely on to move some of our data or traffic around. So with that in mind, an explanation of why some sites die or go down for longer than a few days. Please note these are not in any particular order.
Reason 1. Political or Social problems
Rhizomatica has decided, for a host of reasons that are beyond the scope of this post, to work directly with organized communities and social organizations, rather than a more entrepreneurial or private investment approach. This means that while we are protected from some things such as vandalism (much more likely someone will steal something belonging to someone else than to themselves) it puts the project at the whim of local political issues. We have one site that has been down for 2 or 3 months due to a disagreement between two political factions within the town. This has meant that the administration computer was held “hostage” and no users could pay their monthly fee, buy credit, etc. and that the town stopped paying it’s Internet bill and therefore had no long-distance service. While the places we work are generally quite organized, these types of political disputes do happen and are pretty much impossible to do anything about from our end. Mainly we just have to wait for things to work themselves out locally.
Reason 2. Existing networks, “Interference” and Colonialism
We find that our service struggles when there is already a corporate telco network present or one comes along in a place where there is a community network. We’ve found there are a few explanations for this. The first is an issue around how people experience their phone and network and are conditioned around what traditional providers provide. The second is something more ephemeral relating to how people view development, modernity, progress and so on. This mentality is in turn shaped by the history of colonialism in Mexico. What this all means for our work is that we face, in some localities, expectations of what the community cell phone service should be like. So even if it’s vastly cheaper and more or less of the same quality, the fact that we don’t have direct interconnect and users have to dial using the country code or folks calling in hit a virtual exchange and then need to enter an extension to reach their destination, makes it so that some people prefer to use the more expensive, corporate network. Sometimes its just pure brand recognition. For some rural towns being able to show off that you can afford to use the corporate network holds prestige.
Another related issue we face is the existence of fixed wireless terminals; a fancy name for a cell phone that looks and operates as if it were a fixed line phone. Since coverage is scarce in many rural areas, people resort to buying these and attaching high gain directional antennas in order to pick up signals from really far away, behind mountains and so on. Strictly speaking this isn’t legal, but who can blame folks for doing what’s necessary in order to communicate? The problem for us comes in when the community installs a network and the fixed wireless terminal tries to negotiate between the community network right there and the weak signal coming from far, far away. The result is that the weak signal sometimes seems to disappear as far as the phone is concerned and therefore it can’t be used. This angers lots of people and has led to us having to shut down two networks permanently. If you understand Spanish, you can read more about it here>> http://wiki.rhizomatica.org/index.php/Site_selection
Reason 3. Infrastructure problems.
This is something that we’ve spoken about before and refers mainly to electricity and Internet. As a hybrid approach to networking, we rely on the existence of other systems to do what we do. This is certainly a vulnerability. It also makes what we offer much less expensive. To the point, we have had equipment damaged by electrical surges, or the whole system will go off when the power is out, which can sometimes last for days. The situation with the Internet is more or less the same, with the added issue that, at least in Oaxaca, the major routes to the IXP and the US seem to be constantly broken or not operating to any reasonable standard. This means it is really hard to connect long distance calls for the users. The solution to the electricity issues in most cases is having a backup battery and protecting the equipment from surges and discharges. But fixing the Internet is hard. Maybe we’ll end up trenching our own fiber to Mexico City 🙂
Reason 4. Damage from lightning
This plagues pretty much every rural network and relates partially to Reason 3, when the bolt strikes the power lines rather than the tower or installation directly. For direct strikes, we are working to find a cheap and reliable way to protect everything we put on the tower and everything that it connects to. It’ll add about 5 – 10% of the total installation cost, which is reasonable.
Some of the above can be fixed with a little more investment. Some are complex, deeper issues that we can’t fix on our own. And yet others are tied to the way we have and would like to continue doing things because they align with our values as an organization. We want to offer free/open, inexpensive communications options to people that allow them to both organize collectively and strengthen existing community institutions. We probably focused too much on getting costs down and not enough on making the networks robust. So now we can adjust and bring things into better balance.