Q&A with the Winners: Eric Nitschke

In this Q&A, Eric Nitschke talks about his team’s solution — The Nimble – An Open Source, Portable, and Offline-first Wireless Mesh Network for and by Underserved Communities — which won the Best Overall Proof of Concept, sponsored by Facebook Connectivity prize in the 2021 Connecting the Unconnected Challenge.

1.Please summarize your winning solution

Image Courtesy Eric Nitschke

The Nimble project empowers under connected communities and operators to co-design, build, and manage their own connectivity infrastructure using locally available hardware and resources. The Nimble itself is a collection of open hardware, firmware, software, and educational resources that anyone can use and localize to meet their own connectivity needs.

Open Hardware – Users can customize and 3D print our parametric CAD models (https://github.com/Wakoma/nimble) to accommodate networking hardware they already have in stock or can purchase locally.  For those unable to ‘DIY’ and to reduce the time, cost, and environmental impact of shipping and logistics, we employ a decentralized manufacturing model and partner with local makerspaces, fab labs, universities, and other groups to assist with the design, fabrication, and distribution process.

Open Firmware – We build custom firmware with and for our partners that enables the use of hardware from multiple vendors to create ‘auto-configurable, yet versatile, multi-radio mesh networks’. If a community has a mix of TP-Link, Ubiquiti, MikroTik, or other (https://openwrt.org/toh/start) devices readily available, they can be configured and used in the same Nimble network, further enhancing community resilience in the face of supply chain or service disruptions.

Open Software and Services – Users can deploy low-power servers within the network to enable completely ‘offline’ activities ranging from video and audio calling and messaging, media streaming and downloads, and social networking, to high-speed file-sharing, synchronization, and backups. The Nimble is powered by our open source Lokal platform (https://github.com/Wakoma/Lokal) which makes it easy to add new or existing offline services, many of which focus on locally relevant content creation and sharing.

The Niimble combines all of these approaches with open educational resources and capacity building to empower communities to create networks highly adapted to their local context, leveraging a global pool of open designs and support.

Image Courtesy Eric Nitschke

2.What is the most unique/innovative aspect about your approach?

Our team believes that small-scale, locally-focused network operators are essential for providing and maintaining access where one-size-fits-all national operator models have failed (https://manypossibilities.net/2023/01/a-game-of-stones/). To these ends we partner with groups that aim to either construct new low-power network infrastructure, or expand the capabilities of existing networks, using open hardware and products made as closely as possible to where they are to be deployed.

Where sustained connectivity is crucial, open hardware can enable faster and more efficient network deployment or repair, and increased resilience, as small-scale operators are able to manufacture and resolve issues right at the edge of the network.

3. What did you enjoy most about the CTU Competition and Summit Program?

Our team was honored to win Best Overall Proof of Concept at the first annual CTU Challenge. We were thrilled that the Competition and Summit sparked conversations leading to new partnerships and projects, and new areas of R&D.  

For instance, this year our team worked with the IEEE CTU21 Technical Concept 1st Prize Winner “Bamboo Towers for Low Cost, Affordable Internet Connectivity to Remote Rural Areas” and partners Association of Progressive Communications (APC), Servelots, Coolab, IIT Bombay, Freifunk, and SLS, to design and deploy a prototype off-grid wireless network in a rural village near Bangalore that provides curated offline content and services.  The network uses locally available off-the shelf and open hardware, including solar power for off-grid use and a tower made from locally sourced bamboo for extending the range of the signal in the village.

4. What are your project plans for the next 12-18 months?

Image Courtesy Eric Nitschke

Two years of the CTU Challenge and Summit has shown us that communities around the world are able to create and manage their own connectivity infrastructure that can operate in areas without reliable or affordable internet access. However, the lack of relevant, dynamic, and localized technical documentation, guides, and educational resources remains a significant barrier to connectivity.

In addition to expanding our distributed manufacturing network, we are working with several partners to build an open community networking hardware database and tools for appropriate and automated (where possible) hardware selection, procurement, configuration, and documentation.  

5. What is your estimate of the number of people impacted by your program?

We estimate that at least 65,000 people have benefited from our work on the Nimble through small and large deployments on four different continents. We would like to stress the phrase ‘at least’ because this is an open-source project, and there have been numerous forks and downloads of our designs and code that we hope have inspired and impacted countless others.

6. Anything else you would like to share

Sincere thanks to IEEE, the IEEE Future Networks team, sponsors, and all others who have made the CTU Competition and Summit an ongoing success.  We look forward to continuing to work together with IEEE and CTU applicants and finalists around the world to empower under connected communities to connect themselves.