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By 13 August 2010 | Categories: news

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Yesterday, during the first day of the Tech4Africa conference in Johannesburg, attendees were delighted by an intriguing little device promising to connect Africa for less than $100.

As reported by TechCentral, Steve Song, of the Shuttleworth Foundation, has been working on finding ways to lower the cost of connectivity infrastructure on the African continent for the past two years. And yesterday he revealed his new device, the aptly named ‘Mesh Potato’, a low cost wireless device that can be plugged into a normal phone to receive cheap and easy connectivity.

The device works by combining a wireless Access Point (AP) that is running mesh networking software with an Analog Telephony Adaptar (ATA). The ‘mesh’ network that is then formed basically means the devices are on their own personal mini telephone network, able to communicate with each other without relying on established infrastructure.

According to Memeburn, the Mesh Potatoes are then able to automatically connect to each other, forming a ‘cloud’ of devices. As these devices are connected they can then relay phone calls to other Mesh Potato devices, extending the range of the network in the process. Users can also instantly make calls to any other Mesh Potato device on the network by simply plugging their phone into the device.

The Shuttleworth Foundation is backing initial development of the device and the Mesh Potato is aimed to be a free to set up and run mini network.

“If you are a non-profit organisation, you can generally operate the networks legally as long as you are not charging for services,” Song said.

The system has been designed to be used in the bush and rural areas in Africa, and has been made correspondingly rugged. Each unit has a range of around 400 m in open spaces, which will decrease in urban areas due to building interference. Song also announced that Village Telco is in the process of developing a longer range device using an upgraded version of their Wi-Fi standard.

During the conference, Song spoke about the importance of introducing cheap and easy-to-use connectivity solutions to the African continent. The Mesh Potatoes would be able to be used in rural areas where they can instantly connect an entire village. They can also be used during rescue operations or in war zones to quickly connect civilians to emergency workers and vice versa.

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