How the refugee crisis gave birth to a open source wifi router

The story of MeshPoint

It all started roughly two months ago. It was a third week of September when the first major wave of refugees hit the Croatian border. Hungarian government ordered building the infamous barbed wire fence on their border with Serbia, and the torrent of refugees was diverted to Croatia, another station on their way to a better life in Western Europe. Croatian government decided they will not follow Mr. Orban’s example, welcoming refugees instead.

In the first few days, it could best be described as chaos, with aid response being organised in stride. Partly directed by the media reports, partly via social networks, various volunteer groups and individuals started appearing in places where most refugees were stationed, and simply gave away food, water, blankets, and warm clothes.

Among them were the volunteers of Osijek chapter of Otvorena Mreža (Open Network), an Open Source inspired movement that aims to provide free internet to everybody. They simply hacked a home router, installed OpenWRT, plugged in a USB 3G dongle, hooked the router to a battery, packed everything in a backpack, and went into the crowd with a “Free WiFi” sign on their backs, antennas sticking out.

Walking WiFi

The response was overwhelming: it turned out that it wasn’t just refugees that desperately need the internet, it was also extremely helpful for aid workers who found it indispensable for coordinating the relief effort. As much as the media loved the idea of walking WiFi hotspots, it was soon clear that this is not enough, and that a more permanent solution is required.

Otvorena Mreža endeavored to build the first fixed hotspot in the camp in Tovarnik, and this is when it became apparent that setting up a WiFi hotspot in an adverse environment is not at all trivial.

Our volunteers, before finding out that this one will not fit into a backpack.

It requires a lot of improvisation, and takes more time that you would hope for. Sensitive networking equipment will often not work well with the petrol fired AC generators, as the choppy voltage will keep crashing it randomly, then there’s waterproofing stuff that doesn’t like to be wet, and then there are cables… Don’t get me started on cables.

Crisis Response Networking Kit: Huawei 4G router, TP-LINK WR842ND, POE switch (24V), 4 x 12V Acid Lead batteries (7Ah), and cables. Protip: you can never have enough cables.

Around this time we figured there must be a more simple way to do this. Setting up a WiFi in a crisis situation should not involve having to spend hours attaching routers to poles, fiddling with batteries, trying to cram everything in plastic boxes unfit for the purpose, crimping and zip-tying cables, and then hoping someone will not trip over one.

We were naive enough to think there must be a rugged networking solution that could support a large group (100+) of simultaneous users out-of-the-box. Something that you could simply turn on and it would work. We searched, and searched some more, but could not find anything like that, so we figured we’ll have to build one ourselves. And this is how MeshPoint was born: autonomous rugged hotspot for outdoors and crisis areas.

Being Open Source enthusiasts, we set out designing a product that any reasonably skilled person could build in a reasonably equipped workshop. We decided to use widely available, OpenWRT-friendly routers, and set out to design parts that could be easily milled, printed, or otherwise made.

We have made the first functioning prototypes in a matter of weeks, and we are currently very close to a product that is fit for mass manufacturing. In a few weeks, we will launch an Indiegogo campaign to crowdfund the project, and raise money to build a number of devices that we will donate to organisations that provide aid in refugee camps in Europe.

If you are disappointed because you have expected more of the technical nitty gritty in this article, we apologize. This was our maiden blog post, to give you some context. If you’re reading this for the technical stuff, do follow us here on Medium, Facebook, or Twitter, because this is exactly what we will be blogging about in the following posts.

If you would like to know more, check out our web site at www.meshpoint.me and leave us your email address to keep you posted. If you’d like to get in touch, send us an email to info[at]meshpoint[dot]me.