We city folks do email or Google something without a second thought. But imagine trying to run a charity like Project Somos – off in the Guatemalan countryside – without a reliable connection to the Internet. Raising money internationally requires blogging, keeping a Facebook page up to date, connecting with prospective donors – and you have to keep in frequent touch with staff, accountants and Board members in another country. It really hit me when we were on the site last year that Greg and Heather had to have a good Internet connection. Taking half an hour to download an email wasn’t working for them. So I took on the task of getting them a reliable, medium-speed Internet connection.
There were three options. Greg investigated the first: upgrading the cell service to provide decent speeds. (I told him he had to become best friends with a VP of the cell company.) Alex Corbett, who works at Rogers in Vancouver, helped us figure out where the bottleneck was and which questions Greg should ask. We learned that reception at Somos was OK, but there was a problem with the back haul, the connection between the local cell tower back to a major town where high speed Internet is available. The back haul is shared by everybody, so when school is out the speed slows almost to a stop. Greg endured many phone calls and meetings, and eventually concluded that improving Somos’ cell service would cost $20,000. Not really an option.
The second option, installing a satellite link, was rejected early: all I could find was service at $400 per month. Not really an option. The Hughes website said a cheaper service was coming to the US, so I tried to find out if the footprint would cover Guatemala, but even a big company like Hughes didn’t answer multiple emails from me.
So that left us with the third choice, installing a microwave link to a town within line of sight. Patzun, 5 Km away, was definitely visible from Project Somos. But where in Patzun could we could get DSL and put up an antenna with line of sight to Project Somos? Back to Greg. After a few false starts and much frustration, he got permission to put an antenna on the Patzun fire hall and install a router in their office. In return, we would give them free Internet. An affordable option.
Meanwhile, I was studying the design of a microwave system that would get the Internet to the staff house, the Community Hall and a future administration building.
Having taken a course in microwave systems design 47 years ago, I thought no problem, I’ll take a stab at it. So with the help of some material I found on the Internet, I designed a system using routers, amplifiers, radios, converters, thick heavy cables, etc. I wanted to have somebody check it, so I sent it to Alex. He politely replied that what I had designed would work, but I should look at some of the new technology, and gave me a link to an antenna that had everything built in. Just plug your LAN cable into the antenna and it was ready to plug into your computer, all for $69.
Then Jordon Randall, IT Manager at Science World, helped me design the network. We wanted it reliable, so no rebooting would have to be done, and secure, so visitors couldn’t hack into staff computers. So I ordered all commercial grade equipment and Jordon set it up. Commercial grade routers and switches allow you so many options that it takes a long time to learn what all the settings should be, but Jordon did it.
I wanted the whole system thoroughly tested before I went to Guatemala, as there was no way to get extra bits and pieces once I was there. So initially I set up two antennas in my office and got everything working. Then I tested it across our and the neighbors’ front lawns. Finally, we set the link up from our Vancouver house across the bay to a friend’s house in West Vancouver and tested it over a month in all kinds of weather. It worked perfectly.
During this process, I realized that the Patzun main antenna could also be seen from the local community school in Chivarabal, so I asked Greg and Heather if we should put in an antenna and switch at the school and buy them a computer. They agreed, so I bought the switch, antenna and a ChromeBased computer that has little local storage, does email, documents and browsing, all over the Internet.
This afterthought had benefits we never thought of when we decided to do it. To quote Greg: “This will be a legacy that will benefit many students here and eventually the whole community of Chivarabal. It has put Project Somos in a very good light in the general community and particularly with the school, mayor and village council. This is huge, as we are always aware we have to keep current in our assistance of the local community.”
Last steps. Judy and I went to Project Somos, and Greg and I spend six days installing the system. I won’t go through all the trials and tribulations of doing something for the first time. The photos show the 28-foot antenna at the staff house. It was set in concrete – so when we had a problem, scaffolding had to be built to get at it. We cut the pole down to 15 feet, where it worked just as well. At the fire hall, the antenna had to be fastened to an existing pole. The firefighters felt the pole wasn’t strong enough to take much weight, so intrepid Greg climbed a 19-foot ladder that was held up by four firefighters with ropes and not leaning against anything! The third photo shows me attaching connectors to Tough Cable, a cable that can withstand any weather condition. It should be called Impossible Cable, as it took about half an hour to attach each connector and many times I had to cut it off and start over again when a wire didn’t connect properly.
The last day was hectic. We lost connection, and had to go back to Patzun – 45 minutes on a pothole-infested road – and make a change to the router. We were still not getting reliable speeds at the Staff House which was when we discovered that even the sturdy staff house antenna moved enough in the wind to degrade the signal, and will have to have guy wires attached. Heads in Vancouver and Guatemala puzzled quite a while over that. At the end, though, it looks like we met our goal of establishing medium-speed Internet at Project Somos and the school – an international team effort.