Linda and Mvu,
It looks like you are in good hands with the advice so far!
Some more things: You can use wapa•org•za/coverage/request (relevant to South Africa) to find other networks in your area - there may be more than you think. There are over 300 independent small networks in South Africa - that means a lot of people who might be willing or able to help you. (For those not in South Africa, maybe we can help you to start a similar forum for your country?) zenzeleni•net/resources-2/ page has some resources relevant to South Africa, and also for South Africa you can also use wazimap•co•za to estimate how many people could benefit from a network in your area. (Again, to other people reading this, we can help to adapt a website like this to your country - it will just take a few days of dedicated time by a software developer - and to finding the data from your government.) This website won’t let me post more than 2 links, so I put all these links, and more, here: http://wish.org.za/page/how-to-start.
What is surprising to most people, but very useful to understand, is that even the richest, most powerful person in the world, can not have better internet, than you, or a phone or a laptop that can do things that a cheaper one can’t do. (Why do you think presidents and business leaders use Twitter?) You won’t believe it, but some cheap phones today are better than the most expensive ones - their battery lasts longer, and they are easier to use.
If the richest person in the world can get faster internet, then you can get it, and if you can split the costs with just 100 or maybe even just the right 10 people, then it will be super cheap - so don’t think that you have to settle for a broken connection. If you do it right, you can have a network that is faster than the people in the city, just like the community of Mankosi. Even though they are 2-3 hours’ drive from the nearest connection, and that their connection costs 10 times as much - they still manage to sell uncapped fast internet at R25/month.
Because the power of technology improves so rapidly, don’t settle for old equipment or second hand gear, unless it really is good enough - because often you can get new equipment that is many times better and that can last a lot longer, at a similar price - or maybe there is a hidden cost that you don’t know about yet.
An easy way to fund your network is with an “anchor client” model - if you can coordinate bringing the skills, passion, energy and organization to the table, then you can provide a connection to someone like a hospital, school, NGO or local shop or business person, who can afford to pay for good equipment, and who was going to pay for an expensive satellite or fiber connection just for themselves, and then you convince them to rather buy it from you and then you can provide something better for them. If you are lucky, you might just be able to find someone who can help you to make the sale.
Even some of the cheapest equipment nowadays supports capacity of more than 10 times of what even the most demanding people will need - so if you think of the network as a highway, the first person on your network will pay for 10 lanes, (150 Mbps) and will only need 1 lane (15 Mbps). That means that you can let many other people, including yourself, drive on the extra 9 lanes - and use that to bring costs down for those who don’t have so much money - and there are many innovative ways to do this.
An added benefit is if people from your community are doing the work, then the money that people spend on airtime gets spent inside your community instead of going to places that already have strong economies… or contributing to crazy salaries from big companies like mobile networks, because that money can be much more useful to people from your community.
I found myself in a situation just like you find yourself now, in 2003, 16 years ago as of this writing I didn’t for one moment think that I would still be doing similar work today, because I had other plans - but here I am - and there are even more reasons to help people connect to information today than ever before.
A good question to ask yourself now already, no matter how crazy it sounds, is to try to imagine how things will be if- or rather when you have 100 network points, or 1000 - or more, and 10 000 people using them - you may think that there are not that many people in your area, but I challenge you to start counting how many people there are… and compare it to another similar area that already has internet. It might happen sooner than you think. It could also take a lot more time than you think.
How will you feel when you see R 1 000 000 coming into your network bank account every month, and all of that money going out again. What will the other people in your community think? What kinds of threats will your network face? What kind of problems are you going to deal with on a day to day basis at that time?
I learned so much about people, our economy, business, entrepreneurship, tax, regulation, government, “HR”, marketing, and so much more, by building a network - a lot of things I didn’t understand when I started.
There were no “entrepreneurship” schools, no courses on the internet, I didn’t even know what the word “entrepreneur” meant, when I started, I just wanted internet and I couldn’t afford it. So I made up a company name, and went door to door and told people I sell internet for the company, are they interested. When enough people said yes, and I was sure that I will be able to collect enough money when I have connected everybody, I charged them for the connection, and I put it in. I was able to do this because I had already seen all the pieces work, and I had access to a computer on which I could teach myself.
Today I know that entrepreneurship means that if you just start, and work to find a good plan and/or mentor, and focus on the outcome that you want to see, and it is something that people will pay for, and if you can keep at it for a few years, then you will be able to reward yourself - and more important than that - internet can be useful, and can save a lot of time, for almost everyone, and building it, you will empower people to achieve more than they could have dreamed possible. And today you already have access to more help than ever before - too much, perhaps - it can become overwhelming. It can save you years of mistakes if you start right, but it is also important to start, and you can learn a lot by just trying things.
Another good thought experiment is to ask yourself - when you have 10 000 people using your network - how many people will be required to help with problems? What kind of skills will they need? How many days will have been spent on people’s roofs… or driving between towers… How many towers will you have? How much time will it take to redo 100 mistakes? (How much time did it take to do it the first time?) Are there people who have this experience and problem already, right now? Can you speak to them or visit them now? How can you learn from from them so that you can do things right the first time?
From my knowledge and experience, everything comes with hidden costs and problems. If you are faced with a choice of 10 things, then often only 1 or 2 of them are in fact as good as you are brought to believe, while the other things will only hold you back and invisibly build toward someone else’s dream at the expense of those of your community.
There are some concepts that are important for you to understand to empower yourself to make the good decisions - and I am sure that many of that will come up on this forum.
People will not often share stories about their mistakes, but if you can learn to ask the right questions, and look for the right things, you will be able to see the mistakes in what other people have done, and it will be easier for you to have a good chance to get it right the first time.
Be super careful of people who say bad things about others. Soon they will be saying bad things about you too.
There are some mistakes that nobody can teach you to prevent and that is just part of learning… and sometimes we make a problem bigger by just focusing on it - instead of on the solution, which may be something else completely, but there are many problems that you don’t have to make - for example, if you believe everything that someone says, who wants to sell you something, no matter how trustworthy or good they seem, or how many promises they make - if you believe it, without checking up on it yourself, then you might find yourself in a difficult position - and they will not care about you, even sometimes after many years of them seeming supportive, I have noticed this in the small things they do, or in the small empty promises they make - at first you might thing that it doesn’t matter, because it is about small things, but it could be an indication of something you need to be very careful of - some people only show their true face when they finally have the power to get what they want, and sometimes for that they need what you have built up and what they want is to get rid of you. A good strategy to deal with this is to listen more than you speak, so that you can hear who speaks up for you - and can see who will speak up for you when it is needed. To make things more difficult: it is easy to be fooled with technology. The Russians have a saying: “Trust, but verify.”
In my experience it will help if you verify more than trust, but trust is super important in Africa, because often times we only have each other to rely on. I found it interesting to see that the people who are the friendliest, are sometimes the people in countries with the worst governments - and I think it is because in those places people need each other more than they need their government. A similar thing happens the deeper you go into rural areas - usually people become a lot more trusting and friendly. Make sure that you help them to learn about the threats from outside, and how make themselves strong against those - but in a way that respects their peace and happiness.
Usually if everyone is doing something a certain way, it is a good indication that it is the best way. In some rare occasions, almost everybody else can be wrong - and that is when it is most difficult to do the right thing. Usually this is when there is a very new, better way that only a few people have learned about yet. The question is how can you realize this unless you are able to test things for yourself?
With that in mind, if there is the smallest thing that you don’t understand, ask - ask here and in other places - not don’t just ask in one place or person and “hope for the best”, but take your time and ask in as many places as you can - there are many “stupid” questions that I asked on the internet when I started, if you search for it, and I think I can still ask stupid questions every day. Even though I was ashamed to have to ask at the time, or still am, I am proud of having asked every question, because that is how I learned. Today I am smarter and more experienced as a result.
Another rule to keep in mind: The internet is like a magnifying glass - it’s an amplifier. If you put internet in a community hungry for knowledge, it will make them smarter, but if you put it in a community with problems, then it is possible that the problems will only get worse - the internet will not remove problems automatically. Also remember that most problems are just symptoms of something else, which needs to be addressed. For example, the internet can make things more expensive if it attracts more people with a lot of money. We as humans often make the mistake to think the symptom is the problem, when all along there was a much bigger cause that needed a different solution. The internet can also show you things that were invisible before, and that can be overwhelming. (Here is a very good, short test that you can take, that will help you be smarter than most people who have supposedly had access to a lot more than you: https://www.gapminder.org/test/)
This is why I believe that it is very important to start a discussion in your community about what the internet is, how it works, and how it can help you find solutions - and what changes everyone would like to see in your community. Then, at the same time, it is important to remember that you can’t be everything to everyone, and that you will not be the one to solve everyone’s problems, you will just help to bring another way for everyone to help themselves. You just need to make sure you talk about this early enough, so that other people in your community can start talking and finding the things that will help everyone, so that when they get internet they have the right expectation. Just like money, and roads, the internet is just a tool, or a means to an end - another way to make things happen - it still comes down to what you- and your community needs, and how your community will use the internet to invite the change that you all want to see.
When I wanted to study “AI” in 1996, I could only find 2 universities in the world where I could do it - and nobody in my family could afford the cost of studying at those universities, nobody in my extended family could even afford a plane ticket. Then, in 2012, those very same professors who gave that course at those expensive universities, presented a better course on the internet, for less than R2000. And instead of just teaching just 50 students a year, they taught 200 000 students all at once. I was in a class with 200 000 other students, and it was an incredible experience. It was one of the very first online universities - today almost every university has online courses, and many technology courses are free. People are earning money by doing all kinds of knowledge work, right from where they live, anywhere in the world - for this they need good education - which they can also get over the internet - but again, it might be hard to find.
There are also a lot of scams and bad information on the internet - and it also allows our youth to be contacted and influenced by people who have very different mindsets and values from us. It can be good to learn from each other, but it can also damage communities. I home that this forum can help us share tips on how to avoid the bad things, and amplify the good things.
The internet changed the way that I think, and live. It helped me to understand people and things that I thought were not for me, and it turned me into a global citizen, allowed me to travel to other countries, and to volunteer for projects that I believe in. On the internet, I learned that “freedom can mean that you have to be able to live with being offended” - and that it is better than the other options. It helped me learn to be a lot more tolerant of the things that other people do and say that offends me, and it has shown me reasons why they do it. Many of the most valuable things that helped me the most, I learned through the internet, and a lot of it I learned just by helping to build the internet.
The internet is just a bunch of networks, like the one that you want to build, connected together. Just that, no more, no less. Sure, there are some big and expensive networks, but those are not the only options. It started with universities connecting their networks together, then companies, and then volunteers and neighborhoods, and eventually companies started to specialize in just making connections, but you can still do it in any way that suits you, the key is to take the first step and start learning how, and you have already started! The internet has value because it allows anybody anywhere, to communicate with, share and learn, with anybody anywhere else. (Whether they will hear, or listen, is another question.)
People sharing recipes about beer on the internet has lead to a revolution in small breweries and beer brewing. You can buy a 3D printer for less than R1000, and you can print almost anything for cents. People are sharing plans for spare parts for almost anything. The internet has taken sharing to a new level - and the information we shares empowers us so much that we often don’t even have to charge for the information. Here, the most important thing that I think we can learn, is to distinguish between the information forces us to give power to others, vs the information that gives us power - and to find a balance.
Sometimes it might be worth working for a company for some time, just to build a relationship with them - and to learn from them - but some companies won’t allow this, so be honest with them from the start so that you don’t run into problems.
Be careful empowering people in your community who you will become dependent on but who might not be there anymore when you need them - because sometimes as soon as they have the skills, they can be tempted to go somewhere else and help someone else - of course, this can also be a good thing - but empower enough of the people who have deep roots in the community and who will not leave the community. People who will be there, and close to any problems, who can solve it quickly when they need to.
If you want to be really successful, make sure you build a network that is reliable - that it always works, and that it is never down. That way, there won’t be problems for people using it and there won’t be problems for people to contributing to the costs. A big problem in urban areas - and many rural areas - is that it just takes someone needing the network one or two times when it doesn’t work, for them to lose faith. Then next time even if it is their device that is broken, they will just assume it is your network, and they won’t even bother tell you so you won’t even know that they are having problems. They will then start looking for other options, and even if there are no other options, they will invite them and will switch as soon as they can.
Build the best network you can, and learn from the best. The best is not always the loud person who says how good their network is… it might just be the network of the quietest person. Paying more does not always mean better, sometimes the best advice is free… but sometimes it is also worth paying. Perhaps the best thing you will learn is how to distinguish good advice from all the other advice - something I am still learning.
The good news is that our brains learn automatically - perhaps learning is a symptom of listening to enough information, even if you don’t understand all of it… just expose yourself to as much information as you can, and wait. When you review the same information 2-3 days later, and then 1-2 weeks later, you might find that some more things make sense. Or even if it makes less sense… eventually you will find better questions to ask, and those questions is how you learn. If you can get in the habit of learning by listening and reading with an open mind, like this, you will achieve a lot more in just a few years, that many of us have achieved in decades. If you visit Mankosi, and talk to the old people there, you will see that nobody is too old to learn.
Wow, I wrote a whole essay. But it felt like 5 minutes.
Good luck, reach out early, and often!