Local tools for better service

Dog House – Local Internet Support

Article from Issue 260/2022

Tools such as community servers and local web traffic caches can help improve community Internet service.

I recently traveled to Cuba to speak at Informática 2022, an international technical conference held in Havana with speakers and participants from all over the world. It allowed me to see firsthand a little of what Cuba is like today.

For those of you who are not familiar with the country, it is an island nation about 100 miles south of Florida, with a population of approximately 11 million people. It has been under a trade embargo from the United States for the past 60 years.

Because this is a technical magazine, I will talk about technical and related economic issues, not political issues.

From a computer standpoint, Cuba has modern desktop and laptop computer brands that people around the world would recognize. They purchase them from countries other than the US and typically use the same operating systems that most other people use. I did notice a lack of Apple-based systems, and I suppose this is because Apple is a US-based company and does not sell their products inside Cuba.

Cuba's government has decided to support FOSSHC as a strategy. They have developed their own distribution, NOVA [1], which will be used extensively throughout government and commerce.

The country has Internet service in most places, both WiFi and cellular. My cellular phone, which works in most countries I visit because I use Google Fi (which is not available in Cuba), did not work in Cuba unless I was inside my hotel and could easily use WiFi to make calls. I could have purchased a SIM card at the airport, but I determined that WiFi VoIP was good enough for the one week I would be in Cuba.

My hotel's WiFi, while adequate for most uses, was both expensive and based on connection time. To save money, I would disconnect from the WiFi when I was not actively using it, which also meant I could not receive notifications, and reconnecting every time I wanted to use the WiFi was clumsy. Periodically, I would forget to disconnect and later would find I needed to "recharge" my account.

Some of the issues with WiFi and cellular Internet might be attributable to fact that the sole Internet company on the island is owned by the state, and there is no competition. I am not sure what would be necessary to license and start another Internet company on the island, but for a population of only 11 million, splitting the population across multiple Internet providers might not be cost effective. Perhaps having the state collaborate more with the FOSSHC community would generate better Internet.

For example, charging by connection time is a strategy that helped US telephone companies – that used copper wire to connect to the central office (CO) – manage the connections to the crossbar switches of the previous century. Under that system, each time one person was connected, someone else could not be connected, so when dial-up Internet was the standard, charging by connection time was practical.

However, with modern-day digital connections and switching, it is better to eliminate connection charges and charge by data usage with data caps like most Internet companies do today. Perhaps this connection-charge method of billing was only something done by my hotel, but it certainly made using the Internet more difficult and less useful.

Another issue seemed to be that rural areas did not have as good a connection as urban areas. This – in Cuba and elsewhere – could be alleviated significantly by using projects such as Internet-in-a-Box [2], which helps by caching local data or data which is requested over and over again by local people.

Years ago private branch exchanges (PBX) were installed in hotels, companies, and other institutions because people realized that most of the telephone calls in the building were local to the building themselves. Instead of needing 500 sets of wires running from each phone to the CO of the telephone company, you would run these wires to a PBX in the basement of the building and then have some small percentage of wires running from the PBX to the CO. It would be very, very seldom that all of the shared wires from the PBX to the CO would be used at the same time.

The telephone book of the past century has been replaced by the web pages of today, and all you have to do now is reach those web pages, which – with a local approach similar to the idea behind PBXs – can be cached on your local Internet-in-a-Box.

For communities with similar challenges, setting up a community server with community networking using code such as that of FreedomBox [3] would allow a reduction of data traffic and better service response inside the community. An inexpensive single-board computer with SSD could provide a reliable, secure data cache unimaginable just a few years ago.

The Author

Jon "maddog" Hall is an author, educator, computer scientist, and free software pioneer who has been a passionate advocate for Linux since 1994 when he first met Linus Torvalds and facilitated the port of Linux to a 64-bit system. He serves as president of Linux International®.

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