Monday, August 10, 2009

Uptime, Sweet Uptime

Getting a reliable internet connection in east Africa is something of a challenge. Fiber is supposedly on the way, but it's been promised for years to no avail. Most institutions, including Heal Africa, rely on a satellite connection to access the internet. The speed is nothing to write home about (perhaps equivalent to an ISDN line), but it's a lot faster than the alternative phone line connection.

But even with a decent connection, reliability is still an issue. Occasionally the satellite will either stop broadcasting or the dish comes out of alignment. A more frequent problem though is simple electrical power - when it drops out, so does the modem that manages the internet connection. But satellite connections, as slow as they often are, offer an unexpected advantage - all the equipment needed to operate the connection resides within the building. And there isn't much needed - just a modem and a router. And so, with a large battery, a charge controller and an inverter, this equipment can be powered for several hours, keeping the connection alive.

In the past this might not have meant much - the computers using the connection wouldn't be on either, and the battery would drain too fast trying to power them. But nowadays with the prevalence of laptops, this isn't so much of an issue. With a live connection, laptop users can keep browsing for data even with no lights.

I had this surreal experience a few times during my last trip to Goma. I would sit in my hotel room with the nauseous kerosene lamp, even as I checked Facebook on my mobile phone. I couldn't power a TV, a phone, or a computer, and I could barely see. But I could still chat with all my friends 12,000 miles away.

But the new backup system at the hospital serves a much greater purpose. With a nearly guaranteed connection, researchers can keep in touch with advisers and find data. Doctors can keep up to date on procedures. Staff can continue to raise funds through foreign contacts, and project administrators can communicate with volunteers. Heal Africa can rely on this now, and in one respect at least, is no longer subject to the whims of the electrical grid.

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