Internet connections for the price of two old tin cans: just solder together two tin cans, add a receiver and you can have you own internet antenna at an exceedingly low cost. At least that is the aim of an imaginative Dutchman who is trying to bring cheap internet connections to rural Uganda. Tristan McConnell met him.

Author:McConnell, Tristan
 
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Ibrahim Mbazira is a blacksmith in Kayabwe trading centre--an hour's drive outside the Ugandan capital Kampala. Every day tourists speed past in their 4WD vehicles: a kilometer up the road they have watched a funnel of water drain clockwise then anti-clockwise either side of the equator line; another 400km to the southwest they will track mountain gorillas in the Rwenzoris. None stop at Kayabwe.

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Ibrahim is 32 and has been a blacksmith for 15 years. A few weeks ago a Dutchman called Victor arrived at his workshop. He had made his way down from Uganda Martyrs University set on the hill above Kayabwe.

Victor had a slightly odd request, but then 'mzungus'--or white folk--are often odd. Victor wanted a couple of tin cans welded together, one with the bottom knocked out to make a cylinder about 30cm long. Ibrahim finished the job.

Neither Ibrahim nor the tourists who fly by would know that this tube made in this small workshop would put the blacksmith at the forefront of a technology that is set to bring wireless broadband internet to rural African populations.

"The premise of the project is that everything is low cost and built on free and open source software which means it can be easily replicated at no cost," explains Professor Victor van Reijswoud. "We are not paying any licensing fees [to software companies] but we are not stealing either. There is no secret involved.

"I am an appropriate technology expert," Van Reijswoud continues, "which means you make and repair tools within your own environment." This is where Ibrahim came in: the tin cans he connected, with the addition of a small receiver and at a total cost of less than $5, is a point-to-point antenna with a 10km range. A commercially bought antenna would cost nearer $70--putting it well out of reach of the rural poor.

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Others have produced similar antennae based on the cylindrical 'Pringles' crisp can. However, there were two problems with this in Uganda: firstly, at close to $1.50 Pringles is very much a luxury item; and secondly, when the heavy rains come the reinforced cardboard can quickly turn to sludge and the antenna melts. The welded tins stand up to the African elements better.

"We need line of sight to connect the cans," says van Reijswoud, which is why the university's position on top of the hill is so important. Van Reijswoud hopes that from this vantage point and with an antenna the size of a car aerial perched on top of one...

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