Internet on the mountain, of Opera and SyncML

April 19, 2006

In Europe, or so the newspapers have me believe, people are on-line 24×7 nowadays. Even the much hyped new UMTS standard for mobile data connections is outdated; we now have HPSDA(?). enabling us to view (and pay for) live football matches on our mobile phones, sitting on the beach. Or in the park. And if that’s not fast enough, there’s more and more wifi-access that you can just hook into. Not so here in Tanzania…

Here, we do not even have our own internet backbone. All internet either comes from surrounding countries or directly from VSAT. As is the case in my home; from my PC and the home gateway, we go up the roof, onto the antenna, which has a line-of-sight connection to the highest building in town, about 5 km’s away. And from there, it’s up to the VSAT satellite and finally onto the internet. Can you imagine the delay in VOIP calls?

And I live in town; what about the schools we work with? They’re almost all on the mountain and given the terrain here, none of them have line of sight with even the nearest village. I do not think I need to stress the importance of internet to education (even if only to make up for the lack of teaching materials). But then, even if some NGO could finance the VSAT equipment, shelling out over $100 per month
for some (non flat rate) satellite uplink is way to expensive. TTCL (the land-line phone company) is rolling out broadband but then most schools do not have a landline and even if they do, the monthly rates would still be prohibitive.

And then there was Celtel, who (in true Tanzanian style) started a GPRS pilot on their mobile networks and forgot to tell anyone of this. But news travels, newsgroups picked up the news, and after a day or two of fiddling I got it working on my phone. GPRS, for those that have forgotten, is what came after GSM data. It’s not fast enough to watch moving video but hell, we have TV’s for that. Imagine, however, the possibilities for the schools! There’s mobile coverage nearly everywhere now in the North East of Tanzania and all we’d need to do is put a GPRS card and a small antenna at a school to give them (cheap, not free) email and web-access! Put down a good cache/proxy box and we’re taking a giant step forward!

I’ll keep you posted on the developments here, once Celtel goes public and announces rates for the connection and data streams. We’ll do some testing and if it looks in any way affordable, will follow up on this…

For now, let me get back to my little Nokia. GPRS is nice, because it’s packet-switching, which in turn means you’re not occupying a whole line and you’re charged per bit, not per second. Gone is the rush we all remember from dial up, there’s the feeling of freedom we once got when we switched to 24×7 broadband. So I fired up the ‘web’ application and jumped back in time into WAP territory. Remember? It’s like stone age internet and there’s about 10 WAP sites left worldwide, apart from Celtel’s new portal where I cannot do anything more useful than download the latest bonga flava ringtones.

However, the WAP browser DID allow me to go to http://mini.opera.com where you can download a suitable version of Opera’s superb web browser with a single click. Install it, run it, and the entire internet opens up! On my Nokia, with the little screen, it still runs amazingly well, with hardly any screen clutter, automatically resized pictures (lowres, to save on bandwidth) and simple but very effective navigation. If you have mobile data access on your phone, download it now!

Once the bits started streaming in (and did not appear to empty my pre-paid balance too quickly), the quest was on. What else? I remembered something called SyncML as the new standard for synchronising data, contacts, schedules and the like and the possibility of doing that over-the-air. Not working for a big software company anymore and not able to install a SyncML gateway to synchronise my Exchange/GroupWise/Notes (pick you poison) database with other devices, I decided to look for a hosted solution. Google took me to Mobilcal, a company specialised in mobile sync technologies that showcases/tests their services at mobilcal.net

Highly recommended! Go to mobical.net, create a free account, and you have a web-based schedule / contacts & notes database. So what? Well, setup your SyncML compatible phone with the account data they provide and it synchronises (or in the case of a virgin account dumps) all your phone data with the website. Even if you do not use the web-interface, this means over-the-air backup of your Nokia! And since the number one stolen item here are still mobiles, I am very happy with a good backup of all my data.

The wait is on, ofcourse, for Google to offer something like this. Cause that’s where all my on-line data resides. But the start is there… as mentioned, more will follow..

Update 25/04: Amongst many ways to get this data synced with my desktop that did not work, I found the excellent ‘Nexthaus SyncJe for Microsoft Outlook‘ that does. It’s free so go to their website, download the plugin and get one-button sync between your desktop, your on-line backup and your phone!

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