Building A Wireless Network Out Of Junk

Volunteers with MIT's Fab Lab program, which is part of the school's Bits and Atoms lab, helped create a Wi-Fi network in Afghanistan. They call it FabFi, and they made it from junk: wire, a plastic tub, USAID vegetable oil cans. Amy Sun, a research assistant at MIT's Fab Lab, talks to Robert Siegel about the project.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Now, a story about MIT students who helped build a wireless network in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, out of junk. They call it FabFi. That's a mix of Wi-Fi and fab lab. Students at MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms have created fabrication laboratories, or fab labs, across the globe. Fab labs are like community centers with machinery and computers that the public can use to create things.

The goal is for the community to use and develop technology that addresses their specific needs. And here to talk with us about the FabFi project in Afghanistan is MIT graduate student Amy Sun. Welcome to the program.

Ms. AMY SUN (Student, Massachusetts Institute of Technology): Thanks, Robert.

SIEGEL: And, first, why Jalalabad?

Ms. SUN: Because when you normally think about Afghanistan, you have this image of wide, wide, wide, fields and fields and fields of nothing but dirt and rocks, and people living in mud huts and really struggling to survive. And Jalalabad isn't like that at all. There's a very high population of formally educated people. And so it's really a place that's ripe for moving on and really figuring out how to build in stable infrastructure.

SIEGEL: And your group from MIT, along with others who worked on this project, provided the digital infrastructure for Jalalabad. You did it with junk. What kind of junk are we talking about?

Ms. SUN: The idea is to use found objects, or things that are reasonably available wherever the project takes place. What the users in Afghanistan figured out was - that they could use, instead of specialty made reflectors, they could use the metal from oil cans. And so one of the very famous materials that they'd like to use is actually USAID vegetable oil cans, because it turns out it's just the right malleability and size for them to make these reflectors.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: So long after the oil has been used, the can also has a valid development use there.

Ms. SUN: Exactly.

SIEGEL: What are some other interesting uses of discarded materials to make this work?

Ms. SUN: As engineers, we'll spend a lot of time thinking about how we affix antennas to different locations, some of the funny ways that people have figured out how to affix these antennas - 'cause you want them to be as high as possible is to take rectangular oil cans and lash them sideways, using this weird, cantilever rope-knot system that I've never seen before. You don't expect to see these jerry cans just sticking out of things like telephone poles or power poles, or just the sides of fences.

And then this weird-looking antenna. It's made out of plywood and chicken wire and it often has plastic bags wrapped around it. But the weird thing is, you get high-speed Internet off of the stuff.

SIEGEL: Now, if I understand this, somebody has satellite Internet connection into Jalalabad. In effect, all of this is extending access to that to everybody else around the city, fair enough?

Ms. SUN: Yeah. We have a fab lab in a suburb of Jalalabad, and we since moved it to the center of Jalalabad. We had this really high-speed Internet connection and people said, we want to do some kind of project where we also have the benefit of all of these capabilities but spread out in the places where we actually live and work and actually hang out.

SIEGEL: Do you find that at the various fab labs that MIT has established around the world, that people in very different places share their solutions and find them applicable? Or are the conditions really quite unique to one place, as opposed to another, and not so transferable?

Ms. SUN: Now, that's one of the coolest, most super-exciting things about the fab lab, is most everything that everyone wants to do comes down to just a few basic ideas. We're going on eight years of having fab labs all around the world. And despite having not the same language and all different kinds of technical and knowledge backgrounds, we're really able to share and build on projects that everyone else has done.

SIEGEL: Well, Amy Sun, thank you very much for talking with us about it.

Ms. SUN: My pleasure.

SIEGEL: That's Amy Sun, a research assistant and doctoral candidate at MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.