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Wilderness Wi-Fi: the pioneering network linking Scotland with a Congolese island

The Guardian, by Maeve Shearlaw.

‘Mesh’ system tested in the Highlands before being shipped to remote Idjwi, where its benefits for the developing world are clear.

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A Congolese king has introduced a specialised Wi-Fi network to a remote island after testing it in a similarly rugged and windswept environment: an estate in Scotland managed by a representative of Queen Elizabeth.

An estimated 250,000 people live the island of Idjwi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which has been referred to as a “forgotten population” by the world’s media.

There is no broadband infrastructure. Its benefits would be limited in any case: fewer than 10 homes on the island in the centre of Lake Kivu have a computer, while the cost of 3G and smartphones mean mobile internet is too expensive for most citizens, many of whom live on just a dollar a day.

But since May, 10,000 islanders have been able to access the free Wi-Fi being beamed across the lake by a powerful antenna. It’s a system otherwise known as “mesh Wi-Fi”, which starts with one connection – in this case in the town of Bukavu on the mainland 40 miles (60km) away – and then the signal is transmitted by a series of masts.

The new Wi-Fi supplies a kiosk in Bugarula, the island’s biggest village, which has five tablets and four computers. People can also pick up a signal within 100 metres of each mast. Unlike broadband, mesh Wi-Fi doesn’t require cables to be installed and people can make homemade antennae out of scrap metal to share the connection.

The system was recently heralded Kevin Kelly, executive editor of Wired magazine, as a technology to “shape our future”.

The Scottish test

Fjord, the innovation consultancy company based in the UK and Ensemble, a social incubator based in DRC that are delivering the project for the Idjwi king Gervais Rubenga, wanted to test the system before shipping it out to east Africa, which is where the Brahan estate near Inverness comes in.

It was the ideal testing ground, thanks to the remoteness and limited interference from other signals, and the fact that the nephew of Lord-Lieutenant of Ross and Cromarty, who manages the land, had already set up a mesh Wi-Fi system for her community.

The wind, rain and terrain were similar too, so much so that Patrick Byamungu, who leads the project in Idjwi and travelled to Scotland for the test, says he could have been back in DRC. “It helped that the people were kind, friendly and keen to help,” he says.

After successfully setting up a mesh system that delivered fast internet, the Fjord team drew up a plan to install a tower that would take the internet from Bukavu across the lake directly to the centre of the island.

Project First Light – The Scottish Adventure from Fjord on Vimeo.

To read the full article, visit theguardian.com. Photograph: Falling Whistles.

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