The internet just doesn’t work that way here…

Kpetermeni Siakor, an Ashesi computer science student, sits in my section of the 2015 class’s leadership course this term.

Kpetermeni Siakor

He understands internet, connectivity, and the virtual world as MIT students might, and has the brains and entrepreneurial spirit of someone made passionate about how to “bootstrap” what exists when things fall apart in a country you care about. Kpetermeni is Liberian and at Ashesi for college.

All I needed the day we talked was to get my “jump stick” loaded up with some GCD (local currency) credit in order to access the internet. But the process was challenging. So I eventually did what I do in America, I asked  a student for help.

Kpetermeni fixed the particular computer problem, but he stirred up another problem – my own awareness of my nascent techno-understanding as Keptermeni earnestly tried to explain to me why the internet just doesn’t work in Ghana as it works in Liberia or America.

As I understand:

In my Ashesi office, I can plug a cable into my laptop and generally get connected to the internet, when Ashesi’s internet is working. My laptop can pick up an Ashesi wireless signal, especially from the last table at the outdoor canteen and if I point the computer towards the cell tower I see in the distance.

Kpetermeni explains:

Ashesi University is connected to the Internet through a wireless link that connects with the national carrier’s (Vodafon) network.  On campus, there are fiber optic links that connect the different buildings on campus. There are also multiple wifi routers in a mesh network that connect faculty, staff, and students to the local network. Cable connections are also possible from the computer lab, classrooms, and faculty offices.

As I understand:

MTN dongle, credits card, jump stick and cables

To get wireless internet, I bought a piece of hardware called a “jump stick” or a “dongle” (it’s about 1-3 inches long and attaches into the place on my computer where “pen drives,” a “jump drive”, or other USB applications plug in). It came loaded with a mega giga amount of units. And I’ve been working happily, though more slowly than when plugged into the Ashesi network.  Why can’t I just use the internal wireless feature on my laptop, I wondered aloud.

As Kpetermeni explains:

Well, I know that Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile, and Virgin Mobile provide USB dongles for pay-as-you-go Internet access in the U.S. They are often used by people who are always on the go from state to state. The wifi built into your computer can connect you to any wireless network, but not a mobile network. The dongle works with a specific phone company’s Internet connection similar to what you would get if you had internet on your phone. The USB dongle is essentially just a minified mobile phone. What you pay is the cost of usage. When you buy a bundle, you are buying a specific amount of data that you can consume on your computer. For example, a GHC 1.00 bundle might allow you to download a few attachments and then it runs out.

This is the primary means of connecting to the Internet for most Liberians too.

As I understand:

When I run out of minutes or units on my jump stick, I need to buy units and load them onto my stick. I buy units by purchasing a yellow MTN card (that’s the service provider I’m with because the person who helped me buy the stick was using that service provider…). The cards are for sale in various denominations from a variety of street vendors. When ready to use a card, I turn the card over, scratch off the silver bar, and enter the revealed code into my computer by following the instructions on the back of the card. Then, my computer account has money in it with which I can e-purchase a particular bundle of minutes (I presume it’s called a bundle because for each increased increment of money, you get proportionally more minutes per GCD). But the minutes I purchase will expire in 30 days after I activate them, so I have to learn how to estimate how many mega-gigas I “normally” use in a month’s time. Hmmm….

Kpetermeni explains:

So, yes, there is an expiry date on each bundle you purchase. However, a bundle is less ‘minutes’ and more of how large a file you can download. Watching videos on Youtube will download all the pictures and sounds that make up a video which are usually larger than say a word document.

As I understand:

The designed process for uploading money and buying minutes for my jumpstick was not working for me.  I enlisted help from the university librarian. She surmised that the computer interface wasn’t working as it should, sometimes that happens. She suggested we find a student to help us (as I said, that always works in America too) and pointed out Kpetermeni.  He re-tried what had not worked for us. It didn’t work for him either.

This was about the time Kpetermeni shook his head and began muttering technical explanations of how the internet doesn’t work here like it works other places. To make it work, he then removed my computer’s jumpstick, took a SIM card out of it that I had forgotten was there, put the SIM card into his phone’s second SIM drive (apparently some phones have two), orchestrated the upload and bundle-buy via his phone keypad, removed my SIM card, replaced it in my jumpstick, and plugged my jumpstick back into the computer. As if by magic, my computer now knew how to reach the internet again!

Kpetermeni explains:

Well, I was disappointed at how slowly the program on the dongle for recharging units ran. I placed the SIM card in my phone to do the recharge fast. This is not related to what I mentioned about Vodafone having monopoly on in-country network infrastructure. It’s just a way to make a particular process faster.

As I understand:

My dongle is a morning person.

 Kpetermeni explains:

It’s true about the dongles. Essentially, the connection you get to the cell towers is shared among all customers using that link. For that reason, you can only get a good connection at night or early in the morning.

As I understand:

Kpetermeni sees enormous potential for the role of on-line learning and e-education in countries without access to teachers and schools. He is not dissuaded by the internet challenges that interfere with me grasping how that might work.

Kpetermeni explains:

Although Internet penetration is growing on the continent, it is often not as useful as advertised. You can tell by the comparatively lower speed on your USB dongle as compared to the Ashesi network. So instead of waiting for everyone to get connected (which might never happen anytime soon), building local networks that deliver educational resources offline through say wifi go a long way to bridge the digital divide. Today, it is possible to host and provide offline copies of Wikipedia, Khan Academy, and MIT Opencourseware as well as software like Moodle, Etherpad, and MediaWiki in communities without Internet access.

As I understand:

Kpetermeni would be a phenomenal asset to a PhD program formally training and innovating with wickedly smart technical people who have a passion for enabling a better future for tomorrow’s generation.  I think of him as an imaginer for educating the world’s disenfranchised.

Kpetermeni explains:

I can’t decide if I should help my country first or study more. I really want to help my country.

Epilogue

I have no doubt that Kpetermeni will be pivotal in raising the literacy and education rate of the people of Liberia, the amazing thing is that the techniques and approaches by which he and other imagineers will orchestrate that social change have likely not even been invented yet. I raise my hat to the learners and teachers of tomorrow.

Note: Kpetermeni is proudly wearing a Google promotional t-shirt with the Googlemaps locator symbol on it. The numbers are GPS coordinates, supposedly of Berekuso…except that these coordinates actually mark somewhere in the oceans off the coast of Ghana… a definite “ophs” for a promotional shirt, which has a delightful irony given how the internet works here.

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3 responses to “The internet just doesn’t work that way here…

  1. Hi Mary Grace, I think you should try Glo dongle. It is the fastest I have seen on the market and I use it most of the time when Ashesi internet is down. You can recharge for 15cds per month, very affordable. The Glo dongle however stops working when it gets very hot. So you will have to take it out and let it cool for sometime before using it again. Also, you have to change the settings a little when using it in Berekuso since there isn’t EDGE there . It is simple and I can show you.

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