sad day. from the way the article is written it seems it could have been avoided with better fundraising efforts. it'd be nice to see these folks get some kind of grant, anybody got any opinions on what org would be the best to petition for one?
Cash, and Time, Runs Out for Afghanistan’s Wi-Fi City
By Spencer AckermanEmail Author May 14, 2012 | 6:30 am | Categories: Af/Pak
It was a project that symbolized America’s grand ambitions to rebuild Afghanistan: a DIY Wi-Fi network, free for Afghans to use, powering the aid projects and business ventures of the eastern city of Jalalabad. But now funding for the JLink network has run dry, and like so much of the Afghanistan war, it’s run out of time. Most of Jalalabad is about to go offline.
The sudden collapse of the network is causing local aid workers, entrepreneurs and the entire city to adjust to the prospect of life without a freely available internet. JLink is woven into the fabric of Jalalabad: It took about two years for high-speed internet to become available through JLink in the city’s public hospital, local elementary schools and the women’s dorm at Nangarhar University. After one of JLink’s two satellite connections went dark on May 1, some in the city’s aid community considered it a prelude to a larger international withdrawal from Afghanistan.
JLink is not something the Taliban destroyed. Its impending collapse illustrates what happens when grand ambitions lead to grand achievements that ultimately prove unsustainable — perhaps because they proceeded from unstable, utopian premises. And like the war itself, the group that created JLink is out of time to salvage its project.
“The demise of the JLink is going to be a huge blow to Jalalabad’s nascent community of tech entrepreneurs — creative, dedicated young people who are pushing innovation in their own communities and creating well-paying, skilled jobs for their peers,” says Una Vera Moore, a development worker in Afghanistan who’s part of a last-ditch effort to save JLink. “What kind of message will we, de-facto representatives of the international community in Afghanistan, send when the network finally goes down? A message of fatigue and abandonment.”
JLink’s genesis came out of a heralded 2009 project begun by some MIT students working out of Jalalabad. The “Fab Labs” were pop-up workshops that taught Afghans to fabricate small-scale projects from T-shirts to, importantly, wireless antennas. The connectivity for those Labs came from expatriate Americans in their 20s and 30s who came to Afghanistan in the hope of helping, nonviolently, to rehabilitate a country fractured by decades of war. Two of those expats, living out of a guesthouse in the city, loaned the Fab Lab a place to work, and then connected the lab to their own wireless network.
“At the Fab Lab, some of the [Afghan] students came up with the idea of using point-to-point antennas and off-the-shelf routers to create a mesh network, to share internet around Jalalabad,” explains one of those expats, Todd Huffman, a 32-year-old San Franciscan. “Initially, MIT students were using a laser cutter at the Fab Lab to fabricate point-to-point dishes. Afghan students quickly figured out you didn’t need a laser cutter — you could build them out of tin cans and whatnot. That’s the core of how this got started.”
It also got started because of the personalities of the expats. They’re a mixture of tech evangelists and altruists, several from the West Coast, who were unlikely visitors to Afghanistan. Huffman described himself as a bored grad student who “wanted to get out of academia for a while.” His friend and roommate, Peretz Partensky, is about as far from a traditional development worker as it’s possible to be: He has a Ph.D. in biophysics. Partensky joined Huffman in Jalalabad in December 2010.
The milieu around the guest house called itself the Synergy Strike Force, or SSF — an informal network for development and tech projects, but mostly a cool name for a crew of about a dozen friends. Ask the SSF exactly what it is, and you get confusing and somewhat highfalutin’ answers. (“It’s about operating principles, rather than specific agendas,” Partensky says, inscrutably.) But its members wanted to marshal technology to make immediate, beneficial impacts on Afghans’ lives, without the encumbrances of the development bureaucracy — and definitely without the cooperation of the U.S. military.
Yet the SSF’s utopianism about the limitless potential of technology can rival the faith that war supporters place in the military to magically fix a country wracked by decades of war. “I was too young to have any impact on the global stage when 9/11 happened,” says Partensky, 30. “But I was always thinking that one of the best ways to engage in these wars would be informationally. Instead of sending troops, if you could just blanket [a country] with information, or if you could give everyone a piece of technology like a computer and then blast the internet everywhere, then everything you would want to achieve will achieve itself on its own. Certain kinds of transformation are irreversible.”
Dave Warner seemed to agree. A friend of Huffman’s, Warner is the team’s link to both the developing world and the world of development. A medical neuroscientist, Huffman has worked on getting cheap tech to conflict zones for years in places as diverse as Indonesia and Iraq. (Interests include “interventional informatics, medical communications, distributed medical intelligence, biosensors, quantitative human performance, expressional interface systems and physio-informatics.”) Huffman credits Warner with getting him to come to Jalalabad in 2009, to help on Warner’s public-health projects — projects that the Fab Lab and the new Wi-Fi network would enable.
The goals of the SSF may have been grandiose. But its specific projects were often a matter of “cut-out wood, chicken wire, tin cans stretched around,” Partensky says — nodes on a network that were easy to fabricate with readily available material, often salvaged from a scrapheap or the trash. And after Afghans at the Fab Lab learned they had a place to manufacture point-to-point dishes, the devices began to dot roofs across Jalalabad. Cheap Linksys routers purchased at bazaars in nearby Pakistan began proliferating. When Huffman would take trips home to San Francisco, he’d bring back routers and netbooks to donate.
For the first time, free internet disseminated throughout Jalalabad. When glitches occurred, Partensky recalls, “the people [who] grew to be reliant on it — the kids, students and so on — would climb on their roofs and fix it.” Fast Company called an early version of the network “amazing.”
And the network wasn’t just for leisure-time usage. Befitting Warner’s background, some of the SSF’s efforts in Afghanistan involve telemedicine, including a project that sent OB/GYN and natal-health information to the cellphones of pregnant Afghans. The dissemination of JLink helped keep those efforts going. Jalalabad’s hospital, for instance, had a shortage of doctors experienced in reading X-rays and other advanced diagnostics. Suddenly, the doctors could reach back to volunteer radiologists for assistance. “These X-rays run over the internet connects we’ve maintained,” Huffman says.
Nangarhar University came online soon after; Partensky coached the basketball team. Afghan entrepreneurs began tech start-ups, communicating with each other and potential investors from the outside world thanks to JLink. Huffman estimates a few hundred Jalalabad residents use the network.
But the bandwidth was expensive. And the SSF, true to its utopian spirit, was giving it away.
The theory among the SSF was that as JLink became entrenched and more users came online, “eventually a market will exist inside [Jalalabad] and people will be able to provide for it themselves,” Partensky explains. Until then, the funding solution the SSF came up with was: their own bank accounts. The financial demands on the network grew alongside usage. Depending on the amount of bandwidth and the connection speed, Warner and Huffman estimate that the network costs between $5,000 and $15,000 per month to maintain — and he and his friends were shelling that out.
The theory unraveled earlier this year, as Huffman realized how financially unsustainable JLink was. They began reaching out beyond their traditional social networks, to non-governmental aid organizations, to get some infusions of cash. It didn’t seem so difficult: Under the Obama administration’s next Afghanistan budget, the United States spends the $180,000 that a year of JLink bandwidth costs every 12 minutes. Meanwhile, SSF members were cycling in and out of Afghanistan; Partensky returned to the U.S. over a year ago. While they thought that might open up the pool of potential JLink donors, it hasn’t worked out that way.
“We have had zero luck in finding anyone willing to support bandwidth costs for Afghanistan,” Huffman says. Earlier this week, one of JLink’s two satellite connections went down. What remains is a low-speed, 256kb version — which Dave Warner calls “way over-subscribed.”
The SSF estimates that it might have enough cash to keep the remaining satellite connection up for a few months at the longest. After that, networked Jalalabad computers will still be able to talk to one another and view any websites set up on local servers. But the rest of the internet will be inaccessible. Only foreign organizations in the city have regular access to electricity; satellite links are prohibitively expensive for locals.
That frustrates Partensky, who grew up in the Soviet Union and says he relates to Afghans discovering the outside world for the first time. “They go on the internet and see people smiling and laughing, it transforms them,” he says. “They see a video on the internet, they’re blown away. For the amount of money it takes to sustain an individual soldier, you can provide internet for hundreds of thousands of Afghan students.”
But even if the costs are relatively small, raising the cash for JLink has run up against donor fatigue for a decade-long conflict. “Organizations that would have had supported this a few years ago are no longer supporting it, because the interest in Afghanistan has left,” Huffman says. Now, “when the international community talks about Afghanistan, the perspective is, ‘The international community doesn’t want to be here, the Afghans dont want us here, screw it.’”
Huffman is still exploring ways to raise the cash. On Monday, he’ll return to Afghanistan for his tenth trip in three years. Stateside, he says, the La Jolla Rotary Club is collecting donations for JLink. But even if the SSF can generate an infusion of money that Huffman isn’t optimistic about raising, Jlink will still operate on a hand-to-mouth basis. For Afghans, the network remains “outside the reach of anyone institutionally. No hospital or university can afford anything like that,” Partensky says.
In other words, Jalalabad’s DIY internet won’t be a casualty of war. It’ll be a casualty of indifference. And, perhaps, a casualty of its own ambition.