A school without walls is based on the concept of a Wireless Mesh Network (WMN). This is a concept that promises to democratise the process of global digitalisation. a concept as seen as a community's answer to the growing stranglehold of corporates over communication technologies. Tamarind Tree along with this technology partner Nomad Communications have been experimenting with the concept for the past several years and are convinced that it could be the best solution for last mile connectivity for the communities.
Wireless mesh is a communications network made up of radio nodes, organized in a mesh topology rather than a starred topography which is currently being used by the Wireless Internet Service Providers . Wireless mesh networks often consist of mesh clients, mesh routers and gateways. The mesh clients are often laptops, cell phones and other wireless devices while the mesh routers forward traffic to and from the gateways which may, but need not, be connected to the Internet.
The coverage area of the radio nodes working as a single network is sometimes called a mesh cloud. Access to this mesh cloud is dependent on the radio nodes working in harmony with each other to create a radio network. A mesh network is reliable and offers redundancy. When one node can no longer operate, the rest of the nodes can still communicate with each other, directly or through one or more intermediate nodes. Wireless mesh networks can self form and self heal. Wireless mesh networks can be implemented with various wireless technologies including 802.11, 802.15, 802.16, cellular technologies and need not be restricted to any one technology or protocol.
Wireless mesh architecture is a first step towards providing cost effective and dynamic high-bandwidth networks over a specific coverage area. In a traditional network a router communicates exclusively to a centralised Access Point on the one hand and the clients on the other. In a mesh network a router acts as a station and access point simultaneously. Mesh infrastructure carries data over large distances by splitting the distance into a series of short hops. Intermediate nodes not only boost the signal, but cooperatively pass data from point A to point B by making forwarding decisions based on their knowledge of the network. Such an architecture may, with careful design, provide high bandwidth, spectral efficiency, and economic advantage over the coverage area.
This type of infrastructure can be decentralized with no central server. . Nodes act as routers to transmit data from nearby nodes to peers that are too far away to reach in a single hop, resulting in a network that can span larger distances. The topology of a mesh network is also reliable, as each node is connected to several other nodes. If one node drops out of the network, due to hardware failure or any other reason, its neighbors can quickly find another route using a routing protocol.
The Mesh Network at Tamarind Tree
There is an impressive penentration of wifi enabled smart phones even in the rural areas of Maharashtra. Moreover there is an increasing desire even among illiterate parents to provide computer access to their children. However as far as conventional internet access is concerned, the last mile connectivity continues to be as elusive as it was five years ago even with the supposed availability of 3G spectrum. Moreover the data charges on the GSM network continue to be prohibitive.
The Tamarind Tree wi-mesh is an experiment of creating an organic network that would be created and owned –of course with a lot of landholding-- by the community with their active participation and to whatever extent possible, even financial contribution.
The design of the Tamarind Tree wireless mesh is:
1. The school is the primary node hosting the Virtual Learning Environment, the video server, the e-library server and all other critical infrastructure.
2. In the first phase of the project, we are working on five arterial routes in a distance of 4-6 kilometres around the school to cover the villages of Sogve, Savta, Sarawali, Jamshet and Ashagad. The arterial routes will be connected to the Primary node through the 5.8 Ghz link. From here, the secondary routing will trigger the last mile connectivity and students of Tamarind Tree will be able to join the network with the purchase of a router. The parents of the students of Tamarind Tree would be actively encouraged and facilitated to purchase a router. The market price of the router is from Rs 1000- Rs 1500.
3. A network of this nature is the first step in democratically building up rural communications infrastructure in an area largely neglected by government intervention.
4. Given that the network covers a fairly large geographical area, the educational resources of Tamarind Tree would also become available to the more than 25 government and semi-aided schools in this region. This means that the digital content being developed by Tamarind Tree can be accessed by hundreds of students from other schools along with their teachers.
5. The network works is a microcosm of the internet -- students will be able to upload, download content, participate in self created social media sites, listen to music, watch videos – all digital activity as done on the world wide web but not connected to it.
8. It may be noted that this is not a technological innovation project as the technology has been tried and tested world over including many parts of India. This is a sociological project in which the critical component is to have a buy in from the community.