By Ryan Chen
Editor’s Note: Ryan Chen, a motion designer/illustrator at Google, is a member of the 11-person NetHope Team J deployment to Greece and its official mission storyteller.
When deploying Wi-Fi kits in the field, time is of the essence. Every refugee camp in Greece is different, and each has its own set of logistical challenges. Sometimes the power source isn’t in an ideal location. Other times, it takes longer than expected to receive permission from camp management to install Wi-Fi. And sometimes, the weather just doesn’t cooperate.
That’s why the leaders of NetHope’s most recent Greece deployment (also known as “Team J”) decided to pre-build the Wi-Fi units it planned to install at 16 camps across Greece, reaching nearly 11,000 refugees. When the units are built in advance, the team can focus its time on the ground to finding a source of power in the camp, and determining where Wi-Fi units should be placed for the greatest coverage.
Our team of 11 arrived in Thessaloniki on the evening of Sunday, December 4. The next morning we were at a hardware store. We picked up the weather-sealed containers for the Cisco Meraki MX routers and Power over Ethernet (POE). After that, we headed to a satellite dish store to get some J-shaped brackets that would attach access points to buildings, containers or poles. Their J-shape would separate the access point from a structure to prevent interference with the Wi-Fi signal. We drove our purchases back to a warehouse, where NetHope keeps many of the components for the field.
We were raised up by forklift to a small second-story platform where the supplies are: Cisco access points (MR 66s), routers (Meraki MX Range 65 and 84), outdoor grade Ethernet (Cat-6 1000 mbps), electrical housing boxes, power drills, and other tools. NetHope contractor David Tagliani and Matt Altman, a longtime volunteer from Cisco, combed through boxes with Ilias Papadopoulos, a local contractor, to determine what would be needed for the Wi-Fi units. Thessaloniki is by the water, with a kind of cold that goes right to your bones. The frigid air blew through the warehouse, reminding us of the weather refugees had to endure this winter season.
Once we acquired all the necessary gear, we loaded it into our vans. My colleague from Google, Charlie Hall (pictured above), gave me a quick primer on how the units would be assembled. First, the internet is wired into the firewall and the power goes into the POE. The internet is then fed into the POE, which combines both power and internet, and that signal is sent to the access points. Access points emit the Wi-Fi signal, just like a router does at home.
Our hotel was kind enough to provide their dining room for our assembly work, and for the next two days, Team J put together the parts necessary to deploy Wi-Fi to 16 camps. I’m hopeful that this process will reduce installation time. The faster we deploy, the faster refugees can be connected.
The NetHope-led Syrian Refugee Connectivity Alliance was made possible by the support of Cisco, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, The Patterson Foundation and UNHCR. When this mission is completed 75 refugee camps in Greece will have Wi-Fi, providing refugees with critical access to family and friends and services.