One of the challenges of trying to launch an innovative non-profit organization in a former war zone is that on any given day, you can run into serious and unexpected problems that can impede your progress.
One story from a couple of months ago best illustrates these surprises and challenges:
One morning, I received a call on my cell phone in Uganda: it was one of our regular users of the BOSCO network, named Jokondino, in Pagak IDP camp, a fairly large and congested camp of over 15,000 people. As an aside, Jokondino is a primary school teacher and has been using our network to find educational information on the web to enhance his knowledge of the school subjects he teaches—many teachers in northern Uganda do not receive adequate training and almost none of the primary school teachers have received a university education. Jokondino also journals about his experiences in Pagak as a primary school teacher on our BOSCO collaborative wikispace workpage (See http://bosco-uganda.wikispaces.com/Jokondino%27s+Journal).
Anyway, back to my story: Jokondino called me and told me that the network was down, he was not able to access the Internet or the central server we use to remotely store user files. At this particular time, our technical assistant was on vacation in Austria so I was left—without many technical skills—to try and figure out what was going wrong with our long range wireless computer network between all of the IDP camps. That morning I received a dozen or more calls from users in other IDP camps wondering why their access to the outside world had been cut off.
Our network uses a 100 foot TV tower to broadcast the long range WiFi signal out to all of the camps using directional antennas. The government of Uganda’s Ministry of Communication had given us written approval to broadcast from this location free of charge. After doing some preliminary testing of the network to find the problem, we were able to determine that the camps were not receiving their signals from the TV tower our equipment sits on.
I asked Fr Joseph Okumu, the Director of BOSCO-Uganda in Gulu, what we should do and he instructed me to drive out to the TV tower to see what I could find.
When I arrived at the tower—with its rusty chain link fence around it—I found a couple of security guards watching over the property, armed with AK 47 guns. In the corner of the property, lying on the ground was a large wooden box with yards of cable coming out of it—The box was labeled with the logo of the Ugandan government telecom company.
I was a bit confused, confronted with a “coup” of sorts of our TV tower. And I was certain that we never previously had used armed guards to protect our equipment. I ended up approaching the two guards and made casual conversation with them. Eventually, I inquired about what was going on and who had moved into the tower property. They informed me that it was the government telecom company. They had purchased the land and wanted to erect a cell phone antenna on top of the tower we were using to transmit our long range WiFi.
I then asked them if I could take a look around the property and they agreed to let me. I looked up at the tower through the glaring sunlight and counted the BOSCO antennas, still mounted 100 feet up—they were all accounted for. Then as my eyes followed the long, thick black cords coming down the tower from the antennas, I noticed that there was an abrupt cut in the wire, which left the wires hanging precariously five feet off the ground with nothing attached to them.
Someone had cut the wires which were attached to a couple of pieces of equipment on the ground, including a solar panel and batteries which powered the antennas on top of the tower, enabling them to transmit the Internet WiFi signal to the IDP camps. It was clear then that someone had stolen the equipment on the ground—equipment totaling almost 2,500 dollars.
Later on, we would come to find out that the government telecom company had purchased the land that the tower sat on. They wanted us to remove our equipment from the tower—it’s still not clear who actually stole the equipment we had on the ground. We did climb the tower to remove our antennas and spent the next weeks trying to figure out a way to redeploy our system on a new tower—either renting space on another tower or building our own.
Since that time we have been in discussions with the government telecom company and have come close to resolving future disputes regarding the renting of tower space for our equipment. The difficult part about this incident, from the perspective of our organization, was that we had a legal right and permission to be there and no recourse or funds to contest such a large government entity in a court of law.
Last week, we had just finished discussions with the government telecom company about the legal arrangements for renting space on the tower they had taken over for us. We went into the discussions with a clear understanding of a potential partnership: We would be providing Uganda’s poorest and most rural areas with Internet access (people who would be unable to afford a regular Internet subscription) and the government telecom company would benefit from this because we were training their customers of tomorrow. Our preliminary rental discussions had us renting tower space for about $40 a month—a reasonable rate we presumed.
Well, after going to Kampala to finalize the legal documents, we discovered that the government telecom company had inserted a price in the contract calling for rental space on the tower to be charged at $700 per month—per piece of equipment. We have 6 small antennas to mount on that tower so the total price would have come to $4200 per month! Keep in mind, building our own tower would cost between $12,000-$15,000. Of course, we didn’t sign this contract and came away a bit disappointed.
The work carries on, however, as we try to find a creative solution to this problem. We have permission to use a Catholic radio station tower in Gulu Town as a short-term solution and then are experimenting with new technology that may allow us to skip large towers all together. We hope that as we learn and overcome these challenges that we will be able to accomplish our mission of reaching all of the most rural and war-affected areas of northern Uganda.