After a period of research and field trials, we implemented a
wide-area network for the International Rescue Committee in the
Republic of Guinea, West Africa, using high-frequency (HF) radio.
The system went on line in January 2002, providing global
Internet email access directly to over 60 desktops in 4 offices
scattered throughout the country.
Three of these field offices were sited in remote locations,
hundreds of kilometres of rough dirt roads from one another and the
capital city, and otherwise not served by any Internet access or
regular telecommunications whatsoever. Yet staff in these offices
were now able to communicate at will with their colleagues, family
and friends in New York, Paris, --anywhere in the world.
The total recurring costs for this service?
$150 (USD) per month, for the local ISP in Conakry.
A detailed report of this project has been published in the
November 2002 issue of
who have made the complete version, including diagrams and configuration
"Radio Email" Network Topology
My wife and I left Guinea in September 2002. At that time the
system had proven exceptionally stable and reliable. As an example,
the central email server in Conakry had a continuous uptime of over
6 months without failure. (One weekend in June 2002, a delay
in switching to a backup generator resulted in a brief power loss.
After restarting, the system continued to run steadily for months
This compares to an average of 3 reboots per day when the
organization was trying to use something called "Windows NT." As
a bonus, when we replaced the incapable OS with FreeBSD on the same
hardware, network throughput for Internet access was over twice as
fast. People kept asking us, amazed, "What did you do? The system
is so much faster now!"
The only significant problem with the radio email system was
related to lightning strikes during Guinea's long rainy season.
The aerial antennas for the radios are simply long loops of wire
strung horizontally between two poles. Hung 30 feet in the air, the
arms of these antennas stretch about 60 feet wide, just begging to take a
hit. During this period we had several incidents of scorched serial
ports, fried network cards, and damaged ethernet hubs. All of these
incidents were preventable, had the radio operators followed
established procedures for disconnecting the antenna cables at night
and during periods of storm activity. Subsequent disciplinary
action and ongoing training have decreased these problems.
In December 2002, a lighting strike damaged network cards in the
firewall/gateway system of the central office in Conakry.
After an exchange of emails half-way around the world,
we reconfigured the system and restored service in less than 72 hours.
The greatest value of the project was not in demonstrating the
use of HF radio as a medium for networking. In fact, we would not
recommend HF radio for this purpose if other forms of connectivity
are available at reasonable cost.
Rather, the project demonstrates the value of adapting open
source technologies to the local resources and requirements that
are available. In the case of the "Radio Email" project,
IRC-Guinea already had the radios and radio modems, desktop computers,
and the single Internet connection in their central office. We
only added a few network cards, some CAT 5 cable, and freely
available, world-class, open source software, as embodied in Linux
and FreeBSD systems.
The result was an appropriate, sustainable, and effective
solution, and one that would have otherwise not been attainable.
As a result of this system, operational management was
improved considerably. Especially in the area of logistics,
IRC staff were able to communicate, anticipate, and problem-solve
far more easily and regularly with one another, right from their
In addition, the system literally opened up the world for people.
At least two of the IRC staff--a man from Kissidougou and a woman
from Dabola--are now attending school abroad thanks to the ability
to communicate and transmit information freely over the Internet.
These are the opportunities and lessons learned from using
My wife got an email from Nzerekore the other day.
Nzerekore! Look for it on the map sometime.
I checked the headers.
Sure enough, there it was: Nzerekore!
Proving the Radio Email system is still working well,
each and every day,
2 years on.
Please see our documentation project,
the djb way,
for current technical information regarding email for