Mini-Me: Cash, and Time, Runs Out for Afghanistan’s Wi-Fi City

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Cash, and Time, Runs Out for Afghanistan’s Wi-Fi City

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.”

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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.”

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Phi Beta Iota:  First Congress screwed up in not listening to Congressman Charlie Wilson who asked for a redirection of funding in AF after the Soviets pulled out, toward social programs.  Next Congress screwed up in letting the Bush-Cheney Administration enter into two trillion dollar wars without a declaration of war.  As Medard Gabel has documents, for one third of what we spend on war we could eradicate the ten high level threats to humanity starting with poverty.  As the WIRED article observe, the death of this superb project is a result of indifference–to which we would add general ignorance.  The public has no idea what the true cost of war is, and no idea how inexpensively we can achieve a prosperous world at peace.

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