(Spoiler alert: this gets ridiculously geeky. You can ignore this post with impunity if you’re just here for the gorilla babies and mountain biking trip reports).
Right up there with food, water, and air, Internet access is obviously an essential requirement in life, particularly when you’re stuck in Rwanda for six months.
The prevailing way to go about it here in Rwanda is with a USB stick modem from MTN, the local leader in cell phones (or Tigo or AirTel, but they’re largely the same). For a little over 30 bucks a month you get unlimited access (all the data you can eat) and half-decent download speeds (about 100kbps, as opposed to the 1-2mbps on a Comcast cable modem). Upload speeds are more depressing, so I won’t go there right now.
The biggest problem with it all is sharing that connectivity goodness around the house. You can’t very well shove a USB dongle in a traditional wifi router (well, technically you can if it’ll run the proprietary dial-up software, but I didn’t bring a router, and I’m not enough of a geek to mess with that sort of thing, so a router is just not an option). Then there’s the Wi-Max “egg” router/modem which is sold along with airtime by the Korean guys who manage the local fiber optic cable and access points here in Rwanda – unfortunately, that system doesn’t work in our neighborhood.
So, either everyone in the house gets their own dongle, which is expensive, or we share the one dongle between us. That’s not much of an option when we’re all wanting to be on at the same time, and it wouldn’t work at all with e.g. Lisa’s Droid or Lea’s iTouch.
It is possible to share a dial-up connection over wifi with one other computer by setting up an ad-hoc network on the connected computer, but that supposedly limits you to just two users, so still not great.
Enter Intel. My beloved Dell Latitude came pre-configured with Intel’s rather nifty “My Wifi” or PRO/Set technology, which can create the kind of virtual wifi network that we’re looking for. It tricks the wifi card on the laptop into acting like a hot spot while at the same time bridging to a secondary network adapter connected to the internet and then sharing that connection. The payoff is that I connect to the internet via the MTN USB dongle/modem thingie, while everyone else connects wirelessly to my laptop’s hotspot and then mooch off my connection to the world at large. It’s not fast or particularly streamlined, and it’s inconvenient insofar as my laptop has to be on in order for anyone else to get online. But it works and, hey, it’s free software and it offered an easy fix for the connectivity problem we were facing.
Alas, it turned out to be an awfully buggy fix – connections kept getting dropped and nobody was really thrilled. So, stupidly, I tried to follow Intel’s recommendations for an upgrade of the wifi card drivers and the “My Wifi” software. Unfortunately, Intel had decided to seize this opportunity to demonstrate just how stupendously a big, bloated tech shop can screw up (think Microsoft Vista, only more pathetic and pointless). Just finding the necessary components for the updated “My Wifi” technology required hours of searching and installing and re-installing – only to discover that the newest version of the software involves a completely rebuilt approach with a “cooler” interface, but significantly more limited functionality, as in: it plain doesn’t work. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t get the stupid widget to share the modem connection with clients connected to the virtual wifi, so it was completely pointless.
As I was getting ready to take Andy Grove’s name in vain, I decided to see if perhaps someone other than Intel had taken a stab at this sort of thing. Which is how I came across Connectify, a small Kickstarter funded startup, that has produced exactly one app in its short lifespan, but one intended to do exactly what I was after. Connectify comes in a free “lite” version, and a $30 “Pro” version.
And unlike Intel’s grotesquely bloated 70Mb+ installers, this thing was a compact 4Mb download (pretty nice when you’re on a crappy connection in the 3rd world). Best of all: it worked flawlessly, right out of the box. No need to futz or fiddle or play trial-and-error with various settings. It intuitively “knew” what I wanted, and in less than a minute I had the whole thing up and running. The only drawback was that I had to buy the “Pro” version to use my USB modem/dongle as the shared internet connection, but after seeing how well they’d implemented the “lite” edition I didn’t hesitate to chip in. Best $30 I’ve ever spent on tech. The connection is faster than ever, and completely solid.
Not sure why three guys living in a cardboard box in Palo Alto can deliver what Intel with their thousands of R&D guys can’t, but that’s the beauty of entrepreneurship and innovation. (No, I have no idea if they’re slumming it Silicon Valley; for all I know, they’re MIT grad students with trust funds sharing a penthouse in the Back Bay — I just like to imagine that they’re doing their cutting-edge coding under ridiculously tough conditions).