Jack Fermon, from Google Mexico, came up with an idea on how to increase the efficiency of WiFi network installations through ‘frugal innovation’; that is, by making use of low cost and even cheap materials that are easy to find and with which people could build antennas of their own. The ultimate goal being, spreading the wireless connection all over the country, so that every school gets access to the Internet.
However crazy this project might sound, Jack started working with Alexandre Jacquet, who also works in Google, but is based in Brazil, building antennas out of cans (yes, cans). If Jack’s crazy plan was to work, it first needed to be tested, and (coincidently) the State of Campeche seemed like a right place to start. Although Campeche stands out by its security levels and by the good coordination with which local NGO’s operate, what caught Jack’s attention was its (relative) flatness.
Zuleika de Alba connected Jack with ALM, with the intention of testing the equipment in El 20, which was a great idea, because we know that people in the community are really looking forward to gaining access to Internet (Prof. Bustamante from Tec de Monterrey is simultaneously working on a completely different strategy to achieve a similar outcome).
Jack and Alex had also established contact with an NGO called Únete, through José Rubén Martínez. Únete has been contributing to improving the quality and equity of education in Mexico for over 15 years. They introduce technology in the teaching-learning processes; basically, they provide schools with computers, and more importantly, didactic contents that reinforce what children learn at school. Currently, Únete serves over 10% of the elementary school students at a national level. The school called “Francisco I. Madero”, the tiny school of El 20, was equipped by Únete in 2010.
It took a while before the Ministry of Education granted Google permission and we were able to plan a visit to Calakmul. Jack, Alex, and Rubén travelled there on Monday, May 25, but I met them in Xpujil on the 27th. By then, they had been running tests in several schools in Xpujil and in Nuevo Bécal, which were successful, but none of those places shares the geographic condition of El 20.
If people of El 20 climb any of their higher mountains, they will likely reach signal; from there, they can make phone calls, send SMS, and even access Internet. In fact, within his father’s land, Daniel had built a small cottage which provided them with shade and a where to sit (unfortunately, that small cottage was blown away by the wind last April, but fortunately, it is within Daniel’s plans to rebuild it).
So, in order with what Jack, Alex and Rubén explained, the mountains act as a natural barrier and prevent the WiFi signal from Xpujil to reach the community. Jack could mathematically prove that by installing his can-made device on top of the mountain, he could direct the signal towards the community; his main objective being providing the school with access to Internet.
Before running the tests, Rubén had a look at Únete equipment. Both teachers, Luis and Alejandro, were very kind. They explained that the satellite system provided by Únete had stopped working after a power blackout. It also became evident that the teachers were not fully aware of what Unete’s program was really about, as they kept on referring to the “Internet”. Rubén explained that their systems allowed an extremely slow Internet connection, the main function of those antennas was to connect the schools with their server, in order to update the contents. He then showed the teachers how to find notes, books, videos and all types of didactic material that could be useful. Additionally, he showed some of the kids how to connect to the school’s server with their phones and similar devices.
And so, while Alex stayed in the school (with a can of beans), Rubén, Jack, Sayuri Marín, and I climbed Daniel’s father’s mountain (with a can of olives), located a bit over 1km. away from the school. At the top, Jack and Rubén attached the can to a tube and fixed some electronic devices inside a box that was also attached to the tube.
Then they started running tests. Communicating with with Alex through a walkie talkie, they moved the can a little higher, lower to the right or left. After a few minutes, they concluded that the crazy idea was not that crazy, the test had been successful.
Back with Alex, they decided to leave one of their special devices in the school, so that kids could access the contents developed by Únete even after school hours. So, they plugged one of the cans to the school’s router. Soon enough, Sayuri was accessing the school’s server with her phone. In the night, we visited Daniel and explained what we had been doing. He was certainly stunned “With a can?!, Really?!”
Google-Únete team had worked so efficiently that they were able to take a day off to visit Calakmul Archaeological site. I stayed in El 20. In the morning, Sayuri and I visited the school. By that time, Daniel had already paid them a visit to have a look. We explained the children what the can that was attached to the window was for and invited them to come to “La Casita” (formerly “the Eco-hostel”) later in the afternoon to get their devices working.
Sayuri is one of the four persons in the community that Rodolfo Alvarado trained to turn on the electric system in la Casita. She actually rewrote the instructions for herself, and is now able to do it smoothly. So, the electricity was ready but sadly, it turned out that the signal was too weak and no one was able to go past the welcome page.
Luckily, Alex, Jack and Rubén soon arrived from Calakmul and fixed the problem. They simply attached the other can to “La Casita”, and plugged it to another router. They also charged the required plug-ins to the children’s computers (including those that ALM bought with money raised through transformadora ciel).
At last, the kids were able to play!
The to-do list is long still, but everyone is on it. Jack and Alex continue working on a low cost device that will resist rain and wind and will be powered by the sun. They might get in touch with Yectlahuilli and with Prof. Bustamente for that purpose. Rubén, on his part, has reported to Únete that a router of El 20 burned in a power blackout, probably as you read this, someone is fixing it.
In the words of Max Shein, founder of Únete, “the greatness of towns is achieved through noble acts, and through the joint effort of all for a common ideal: the wellbeing of humanity”.