Friday, February 24, 2006

Dharamsala Mesh -- This article first appeared in .net Issue 145 - January 2006

Setting up the Dharamsala mesh was a feat of technology, innovation and endurance. Oxblood Ruffin gives a personal account of his experiences of working on this mission to provide communication for a community of Tibetans exiled since 1959.

Death trap taxis, ochre-robed mendicants, Silicon Valley pilgrims, cows running interference – these are just a few of the elements of Dharamsala, India. I have returned to this strange and wonderful place after my first introduction to it just over six months ago.

It’s difficult to describe the colliding congruity, as contradictory as that might sound, of the Dharamsala region. There are many different religious groups and cultures that somehow manage to live well together, added to which, there is a constant stream of international travellers passing through.

Yet somehow, things run smoothly. This is mainly due, I believe, to the Indian spirit of tolerance and generosity. And, I think, in no small measure because of the influence of one man – Tenzin Gyatso, the present and fourteenth Dalai Lama.

The Dalai Lama, or His Holiness, as he is more frequently referred to, has been living in Dharamsala since 1959. He fled here with his retinue and, over time, over one hundred thousand of his fellow countrymen after Tibet was invaded and occupied by the People’s Republic of China.

From ‘Little Lhasa’ as many call this Tibetan enclave in India, His Holiness presides over the Tibetan Government in Exile (TGiE) and provides spiritual guidance to his community and the wider world.

When he isn’t travelling his days are filled with receiving a steady stream of dignitaries and ordinary folk. Last week, I had breakfast with the former President of El Salvador who had come for an audience, and the day before Jet Li had visited to pay his respects.

These kinds of things have become quite ordinary up here.The Tibetan political struggle plays out in Dharamsala along with the normal requirements of daily life. Schools and hospitals have been built to deal with the influx of refugees over the years, and in spite of high unemployment, there is a lot of creative industry and most people manage to get by; some even prosper.

Small, small world

What was once far and foreign has come crashing into this distant place, mostly through television and increasingly, these days, over the internet. Yet, as small as the world seems to have become, it still takes some doing for digital information to get here.

This is very difficult and mountainous terrain that is not densely populated. The high cost of infrastructure development guarantees that true broadband will never arrive here.

Not just here, the same challenges face all of rural India, as well. Fortunately there is a local movement afoot to defy the odds and stack them in favour of the locals. It’s called the Dharamsala Community Wireless Mesh Project.

Wireless mesh networks have become quite popular in the UK, North America, Europe, and Japan. Essentially wireless mesh networking is implemented over a wireless LAN. This kind of internet infrastructure is decentralised, inexpensive to deploy and quite reliable.

They're also quite flexible since each node in the network has only to transmit data to the next node. The nodes act as repeaters and pass along data like a controlled rugby team. If one node drops out, then another is able to pick up the signal and passes it along until it reaches its final destination.

As a result, mesh networks can cover large distances and are well suited to difficult terrain, especially the mountains that surround Dharamsala, which act as natural towers, far better than the excrescent eyesores that local telcos might puts up elsewhere.

The mesh project

Yahel Ben-David, an Israeli ex-pat who has been living in the region for the past eight years, leads the Dharamsala mesh project. This venture forms a unique intersection of many of his interests: computers, ham radio, networking, security, and climbing.

His previous career, which includes working as a CTO for a large and profitable Linux service organisation, taught him how to throw together secure networks on the fly. Looking for new adventures he travelled to Dharamsala to visit an Israeli friend who had come to India to study philosophy.

Soon he was hooked and moved here with his wife. From then until now Yahel has been volunteering his technical know-how to the TGiE and local, non-government organisations (NGOs).

In 2001 he began his quest to bring better connectivity to the region. Radio networks appeared to be the best solution for network development, but the cost of licensed solutions was prohibitive. Add the fact that Wi-Finetworks were illegal in India until August 2004 – and then only became legal indoors – and the problems begin to mount up.

Putting his past experience in ham radio networks into play, Yahel began looking at every kind of access point and router technology he could find. He knew that cost would be a factor, and began looking at, and tearing apart, every kind of SOHO (small office/home office) networking device he could get his hands on that ran Linux.

At the time Wi-Fiwas so illegal that even wireless enabled laptops brought into India could get their owner arrested. So Yahel returned frequently to Israel for all of his development and testing, and finally on 28 January, 2005, India joined the more enlightened legislators in the world.

It deregulated a small radio band that allowed ‘any person to establish, maintain, work, possess or deal in any wireless equipment, on non-interference, non-protection and shared (non-exclusive) basis, in the frequency [deregulated] band’.

The next day Yahel was able to put up the first node of the Dharamsala Community Wireless Mesh Network. Over the next eight months many test nodes were attached to trees, fastened to roof top railings on restaurants, TGiE buildings and NGOs, and very tall poles that Yahel took great delight in climbing. The testing was always rigorous because it had to be. On top of the difficult terrain, the weather can wreak havoc on any technology that isn’t built to take a beating.

And, of course, there are the monkeys. Like some of their human cousins, they really enjoy tearing apart new things that show up in their environment because they don’t understand them. Although very unique hardware was constructed to meet the challenges of the environment, the most demanding work was in the software that ran it all.

802.11 protocols were tweaked for collision avoidance and hidden node problems, and state-of-the-art bandwidth management and security policies, among other attributes, were implemented to give as much control over the mesh as possible.

On 4 October, 2005, the Dharamsala Community Mesh Network was launched. The planning and enterprise doesn't stop there, however, as there is still the matter of its future development to consider.Word spreadsUntil recently only the local geeks knew about the mesh since they were involved in its development. Now that it has been officially launched, however, and has made the national media in India, there is increasing local demand to join the network.

Since there are only so many poles that Yahel can climb himself, he’s partnered the project with Upper TCV, a Tibetan educational institution, to form a non-profit technical centre for training IT experts to build and install more network nodes. Fortunately the scalability issues (ie the way the mesh will develop as demand for it increases) that plague networks in places like New York do not apply here.

The population isn't as dense in the mountains as in Manhattan, nor are there the same problems with ‘noise’. Even when scalability does become an issue, it will be possible to develop multiple, overlapping meshes that don’t interfere with each other. It will all just be part of the cutting-edge possibilities of multi-in, multi-out (MIMO) networking technology.For me there’s always been something very endearing about this project. Some true, technical innovations have taken place in the middle of the Himalayas, driven by modesty and need, and not in the pursuit of profits for yet another predatory IPO.

And the people who will profit most will be the refugee school children, local business people, and the exiled Tibetan community as a whole. If things unfold in the best possible way, the Dharamsala Community Mesh Network will serve as a model for many more community networks to come.

Rural India could be linked with the country's great urban centres and remote regions around the world could finally benefit from the internet. Anything is possible, but one step at a time. At long last things are beginning to happen here in Dharamsala that are making the possibility of broadband connectivity a reality. The foundations have been laid, and there is a whole generation of local talent that could lead the world in wireless innovation.

And why not? This is a place where strange things happen and interesting people converge.

Only in Dharamsala could local Hindu merchants throw a party celebrating Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, for the legions of Israeli tourists. In the first two-week period I was here I experienced my first earthquake, went to a Tibetan music festival, and met an amazing array of local folks and visitors from just about every corner of the world.

India is a real masala. In the midst of it all is this unbelievable mesh: visitors suddenly find themselves in the middle of nowhere, but it doesn’t matter because computers and networks can move things along at a breakneck speed.

Just as I was thinking this I took a break from installing some encryption software in the Dalai Lama’s private office. I looked outside into the courtyard to see an elderly monk having his head shaved by a young man. Some things change, others are timeless.