Linux WiFi Router brings in Subscribers for Ghana's Largest ISP

by Ellen Schneider

An independent technical trainer and consultant since 1997, Dan DiNicolo has worked on a variety of training, consulting and authoring projects for enterprise-level clients in Canada, Germany and the United States. His past projects covered a variety of different environments, including corporate, government, military and non-profit sectors. Dan has authored many technical articles and currently runs the system administration resource web site www.2000Trainers.com.

Dan was selected as a Geekcorps volunteer for the fourth group traveling to Accra, Ghana in September 2001, and he was matched with Intercom Data Networks (IDN), the third largest Ghanaian ISP. Dan was assigned to work with IDN engineers to secure their VPN and WAN network systems and to train IDN junior staff in networking fundamentals in preparation for the Cisco CCNA exam. Michael Odonkor, a network administrator, was matched with Dan, and the two worked together to prepare the IDN staff for the upcoming exam.

"I really had no idea what to expect of Michael before we met", Dan said. "Little did I know what a great team we'd end up making; he taught me just as much as I taught him. We had great synergy right from the start. I couldn't have hoped for a better person to work with."

Ghana is rapidly moving to wireless networks as the only realistic solution to high-quality data access in a country where connectivity is hampered by slow, unreliable landlines. The cost of implementing wireless networks, however, has been prohibitive to most small businesses. Many IDN clients couldn't afford the hardware necessary to access IDN's radio networks. Early in his tour at IDN, Dan proposed building the necessary client hardware from locally available parts.

The result has been IDN's Sava Series, which rolled onto the market in early 2002. Dan and the IDN team devised a Linux box that replicates the functions of three pieces of software and is nearly 75% cheaper than the alternatives found in Accra. It is a single-box system with rigorous network security and customizability for specific client demands. Sava Series is the first integrated broadband system designed in Africa to specifically provide high-speed wireless access at a competitive price. It has revolutionized IDN's business.

Francis Quartey, CEO, comments that IDN cannot keep up with the orders for the Sava Series. Since it became available, IDN has had a 30% increase in its number of high-speed subscribers, and he expects this number to rise again once production is able to match demand. Mr. Quartey referred to the Sava Series as a "HIPC solution for a HIPC country", referring to Ghana's status as a Highly Indebted Poor Country with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

"If someone offered me $100,000 or our experiences with Dan, I wouldn't hesitate to choose Dan", Mr. Quartey stated. In addition to having critical input on the Sava Series, Dan was also an effective technical trainer. "It is not an exaggeration", he said, "to say that IDN staff are doing things now that they couldn't before. I don't think I am lying when I say we have the highest level of technical expertise in Ghana right now." IDN management estimates that there has been a nearly 100% increase in the productivity and effectiveness of the technical team that worked with Dan.

Dan, who has been back in Toronto since late December 2001, is equally enthusiastic about his Geekcorps experience. "There weren't too many dull moments working at IDN. One day I'd be doing research with the engineers, the next I'd be teaching short classes, and later in the week I'd be standing on a roof somewhere in Accra helping to install an antenna. I was encouraged to get involved with anything I was interested in, which ended up being just about everything."

Geekcorps' central mission is to reduce the international digital divide by building technical capacity in developing nations. Dan's work at IDN is an excellent example of the type of innovation, resourcefulness and skills that Geekcorps volunteers bring to their projects. Volunteers often develop secondary projects and discover that they conclude their tours in a very different spot than where they began.

The beauty of the Sava Series is that it not only provides a low-cost wireless access solution for small African businesses, corporations and individual users; it is also a means to address rural communication and telephony needs. Dan's work extends far beyond current IDN profitability. The Sava System, and the competitive market that it will create, will eventually bring access to the disenfranchised rural population of Ghana and help level the global economic playing field.

"Certainly Ghana has challenges to face outside the scope of IT", DiNicolo noted. "If the country can remain politically stable and continues to support business development, there's no reason why Ghana can't become the IT hub of West Africa within the next five years. Certainly they have a great deal of talent; the next step is ensuring that it is cultivated. Programs like Geekcorps are helping Ghanaian businesses take those first key strides."

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