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Community Mobile Cellular Network :phone: 馃摗

Hiure on top of the roof setting up the BTS

On the second week of December 2021, part of the #coolab team (me, @Hiure and T芒nia) assembled at the Krah么 Indigenous Territory with a few objectives:

  • presenting the Krah么 territory and their peoples to our team
  • gathering information on the impact of the previous visit
  • experimenting with a new technology to us, GSM networking

Back in 2015 @Bruno and many others involved with #community-networks received funding from Commotion Wireless, to organize Fuma莽a Data Springs, where they deployed a WiFi mesh as well as a 2G network at the Fuma莽a community, in Rio de Janeiro state. Unfortunately they took the 2G down fearing the legal consequences.

We had some fun with the equipment at the last Coolab camp 2019, where we were able to successfully get it working, which resulted on close by phones connecting to the network and automatically having their clocks updated to wrong date/time. It messed up the event schedule, but it was really cool to be able to setup local numbers and make phone calls and send SMSs for free.

But we were missing an opportunity to actually put it to real community use, as few pre-requisites were necessary:

  • somewhere without any cellular coverage
  • isolated enough as to not attract attention by local telecoms
  • have a community willing to take the risk of operating an illegal cellular network

Child sitting in the ground in front of Krah么 mud houses

The Krah么 seemed like the perfect place, and after a few exchanges with Kajre Association representatives we started planning a visit and installation at the Krah么 capital, the Pedra Branca village. Hiure, his eldest daughter and T芒nia crossed 2000Km from Monteiro Lobato (S茫o Paulo) to Itacaj谩 (Tocantins). I was coming from the opposite direction, North of Brasil, and met them at the city of Palmas. At the village, our local contact W么么c么 and his family had a house to host us.

Pedra Branca village seen from above a hill

Pedra Branca is the largest village in the territory, with over 500 people. The village had a Tapera (abandoned village) next to it, and it is being re-occupied, making the village's shape like an 8, with two of the traditional sun-shaped villages stuck next to one another.

As of Krah么 tradition, the first thing we did was to meet at the K茫, the village center where assemblies are held daily, and explain to the male representatives of the families what the purpose of our visit was. The village Pahi (chief), who used to be a good friend of mine, had recently changed, and they were in a bit of a state of disarray, with alcoholism going out of control again.

Acostumed to having Cup茅m (non-indigenous) promise a lot and deliver nothing, they unfortunately seemed to be more interested in having us "baptized" as Krah么, so that we buy loads of meat for the whole community, then in our work. But they were overall excited, despite the idea of a self-controlled cellular network being too abstract to most.

Me explaning about antennas and showing the village on a computer screen

The 2G system we have is composed of 3 parts. The BTS (Nuran LiteCell 900), which is the device which actually creates the 2G signal. The BSC, which nothing more then a computer running the necessary software to control the BTS, which has been assembled into a LiveDistro image by Rhyzomatica. And last, but not least, the antenna to propagate the signal.

W么么c么 had been the Krah么 with the most comfort around computers that I've met. After setting up the equipment and getting everything running, he very quickly picked up on how to use the admin panel to create new local phone numbers, add credit and so forth.

W么么c么 setting up BSC equipment

We had to wait for a few days for the Kajre representative who had access to funding and the right contacts around the region in order to acquire the needed infrastructure items that were missing to setup the equipment in it's final place, in the association house, which is strategically in between the two parts of the village.

The deployment day was also the last we had in the village. So it was a bit hectic. The last items arrived just on time and we got some volunteers to help out with setting up the infrastructure where the BTS would be stuck too.

Continued...

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Coolab team and Krah么 volunteers working on setting up the BTS structure

After having practiced in the classroom, W么么c么 was able to wire-up and connect all the parts by himself.

By the end of a very busy day we had everything wired and the BTS resting safely on it's pole on top of the association's roof.

BTS on a pole on top of the Kajre Association house

But unfortunately the setup failed for two reasons:

  • at the last minute the BSC stopped communicating with the BTS
  • we had the wrong antenna setup

While playing with the BTS and giving the workshops in the classrooms we were turning on the machine without adding the antennas, as the transmitting power is very high and can be harmful.

Before the BSC stopped communicating, we had everything installed on the right place and running for a while. We finally added the panel antenna, but the range was even shorter then without it.

We still don't know the exact cause, as we haven't had the time to investigate again since it. But when the BSC also started failing, the sun was already starting to fade away and we were all very tired from days of workshop, traveling around the territory, and the full-day setup.

Uncertain that we would be reimbursed for the trip we had to leave the next day, a bit unhappy that we were not able to leave a working 2G community network, but also with many lessons learned, both about the technical parts, but most importantly about the human parts of dealing and organizing with the community.


Today, several months later, our Krah么 partner W么么c么 is still very excited about the network and has been making an effort to write a project explaining the needs of the community and has even bigger dreams of connecting more distant, strategic parts of the territory

I hope we continue working with them and have the opportunity to get some funding to try executing what might be the first community cellular network in Brasil.

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