A renewable boost to the Internet cafe

Development projects come and go. They are replaced, neglected, restored, discarded, rejuvenated, and/or dismissed. The ruins of past development projects littered the community of La Plata in Bahía Málaga: the remnants of a concrete pedestal that had been used to elevate a rainwater collection barrel, a run-down and un-utilized school latrine, and a solar panel that had been abandoned after another project left the satellite phone it powered irrelevant.

The new project was an Internet kiosk built by Compartel – an initiative of Colombia’s Ministerio de Tecnologías de la Información y las Comunicaciones (MinTIC). While I was able to benefit from access to the kiosk all summer, it was officially inaugurated just this month to “give 110 families access to Internet without having to travel to the urban center of the municipality.”

Without a doubt this project will have a lasting and significant impact on the community, providing them with daily Internet access and phone service, overcoming the nearly non-existent cell phone signal (I had to stand on the dock in order to make/receive phone calls).

The kiosk does have a few limitations, however.

Compartel "Vive Digital" Internet Kiosk

Solar Pannel Installed on the Internet Kiosk in La Plata-Bahía Málaga

First, the available bandwidth can barely handle one computer playing a YouTube video, let alone five Ubuntu computers with children playing flash-based Internet games. For basic applications like checking email or using Facebook the kiosk worked just fine, but as soon as more than one computer began to use data-heavy websites the whole system became unusably slow.

Second, while the kiosk uses WiFi instead of Ethernet cables to communicate with the Internet, the password was strictly controlled so that they can charge for access and recoup some of the costs of operating and administering the kiosk. This was a bigger problem for me than for your average user, but it basically meant that I could not connect other computers, tablets, or smartphones to the Internet, forcing me to use the limited capabilities of the five Ubuntu computers and only the programs that came pre-installed (install rights had been restricted). Luckily, (for me, but not the bandwidth usage) Ubuntu lets you uncover the WiFi password in network settings and I was able to connect the Internet with my computer and other devices (shhh, don’t tell Compartel).

Finally, the kiosk depends on electricity generated by the community’s gasoline-powered generator, which only runs from 6-10pm every day (the official hours of operation posted outside the kiosk were 3-9pm). For me, this meant that I could only use the Internet during peak bandwidth-usage time or steal an hour here or there when the kiosk was running on battery power. Luckily, a few weeks into my field placement, a worker from Compartel came to decommission the solar-powered satellite phone. He took only the microwave transmitter, leaving the solar panel, cables, power inverter, and battery (everything we needed to jerry-rig a solar system for the Internet kiosk). After some amateur electrical engineering, and some acrobatic rooftop maneuvers by Santiago (the administrator of the digital Kiosk and my supervisor for my field placement), we managed to install the panel on the roof of the kiosk. But after attaching the panel to the system we got…nothing.

The power inverter that came with the system only put out 100 watts, enough to power a lightbulb or charge a basic Nokia phone, but not enough to power the satellite dish and wireless router. Santiago did a little searching and came up with another power inverter (this one put out 300 watts) and voilà: six more hours of Internet a day. The solar panel could not charge all five Ubuntu computers, but with direct sunlight during the morning hours it was more than enough to power the Internet. The extra six hours of Internet time allowed me to use the full bandwidth during off-peak hours and complete a new website for Ecomanglar (the main deliverable of my summer field placement).



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