OLPCorps Tulane University & UC Davis – Sierra Leone

Getting a modem to work…
July 6, 2009, 12:19 pm
Filed under: Technology

One of the goals of this project is to provide internet access for the XOs. However, trying to get it has thus far been quite an adventure. When the team first arrived, they spoke with the telecommunications company SierraTel, and they told us that they could provide a modem and internet no problem, but that we would have to wait because it would take them a day or two to get the modem. While we were waiting, tragically, one of their employees died. The staff told us that they would be mourning for the next few days and that we should return on Thursday. When we went back on Thursday, they informed us that they were still mourning and that we should check back the following day to see if they are still mourning or not. So we did. And they were.

The following week we spoke with them again and they told us that they would be unable to get the modem for us and that we needed to get it from Freetown ourselves (but that they could help with any difficulties we might have while setting it up). Fortunately, this was at the same time I was flying into Sierra Leone and Katie and I could pick up the modem when she came to get me. We went to SierraTel and got the modem fine. However, when we went back to the guesthouse, set up the modem and tried it, it didn’t work. We went back to SierraTel and Natasha, our agent, fixed it (it was a simple fix, changing the network type from EVDO to CDMA). Apparently, in Freetown EVDO should be used but while in Kenema we would need to use CDMA.

Since we got to Kemema one of two things has happened while trying to connect to the internet. (1) the modem gets no signal, or (2) we get a signal, but when we try to connect, we get an error message that says that “the remote computer is not responding”.

Last Friday we spent several hours at the SierraTel office here in Kenema on the phone with “tech support” from Freetown. Our efforts were fruitless. The man in charge in Kenema, Ellis, told us that on Monday a man named Christopher would be back and he was the expert who could fix our problem.

Today is Monday. This morning we got a call from Ellis and he informed us that Christopher will not be coming back until Friday. Damn…

So here is where we need some help from all you tech savvy readers out there. As we wait for Christopher, we are trying to answer the following two questions:

(1) SierraTel personnel tell us that only 3 or so computers can get internet at once on the modem that we are using; while in Rwanda for the training, our team was told that due to the server and access points we would be able to provide internet to all of the computers no problem. Who is right?

(2) This is not really a question, and we will know more once we get the modem to work, but does anyone have any advice or comments for us as we prepare to connect the modem to the server? Has anyone tried using this modem before (modem details below)? The setup will be different from the one that our team has done before (in Rwanda, the modem was plugged into the wall, where as our modem here is plugged in using a USB connection.)

For anyone who thinks that they may be able to help us, we would really appreciate your input. Details of the modem that we bought are as follows and photos are below:

4th of July and Beyond 083


Huawei Technologies CO., Ltd.

EC266  USB Modem

CDMA2000 1x

EV-DO Rev. A

Key Features

High speed wireless access with CDMA2000 1xEV-DO Rev. A

Send and receive E-mails with large attachments

Compatible with laptop and pc

Plug and play

Receive diversity


Microsoft Windows 2000, Windows XP or Windows VISTA

128 MB RAM or above

100MB available hard disk space

USB interface


CDMA2000 1xRTT 800/1900MHz

CDMA2000 1xEV-DO Rev. 0 800/1900MHz

CDMA2000 1xEV-DO Rev. A 800/1900MHz


July 6, 2009, 12:16 pm
Filed under: Logistics

The ball is rolling. And now, the waiting game…

This post is a continuation of “XOs Please…”.

So after my arrival, Katie R and I spent a couple of days in Freetown to try and resolve the Customs issue, as well as pick up a modem from the head SierraTel office (per the office in Kenema’s instructions). Our… “adventures” with the modem will be saved for a future blog.

So why have we been having problems getting our laptops released?

Although his intentions were not malicious, our in-country contact unfortunately tried to tackle the complex shipping and customs process solo, without communicating with the appropriate DCI personnel (their Logistics and Operations Manager). As a result, what he thought was a duty-waiver form, was in fact not, and what he confidently assured us was taken care of, wasn’t.

As of a week ago, our team, customs and DCI were seeing three different situations: our team was under the impression that all appropriate paperwork had been filled out; Customs was appropriately imposing a duty fee (as we didn’t have the correct duty-waiver form); and DCI was in the dark about the whole thing.  It took hours of digging and probing the agents at the DHL and our shipment files, along with the help of the staff at the DCI headquarters office in Freetown, to bring this whole situation to light.

Where did that leave us?

After discovering what had gone wrong, there was still work to do. The DHL employee told us that we would need to pay Le 500,000 (about $150) to the National Revenue Association (NRA) as a duty waiver fee , and that we had to write a letter to some Commissioner (which he graciously helped us get started on) and bring them to him the following day.  So, at 9am the following morning, we showed up with our letter and money only to then be told that the Le 500,000 was the NRA fee and that the DHL agent himself would need Le 300,000 (about $90) for “documentation and acceleration”.  When we (naturally) objected to paying additional fees beyond the previous quote and pressed the DHL man for further explanation, our friend from DCI stepped in to help elucidate, succinctly and clearly, why it was necessary.  “What he is trying to say,” our DCI rep explained, “is that this is Sierra Leone…” (What we heard: The Le 300,000 was for DHL and to grease the palms of the people whose signature we would need if we want to get our laptops before the end of the summer).

It was a classic bait and switch, but at least it was one step closer to the liberation of our laptops.

As of Friday, our paperwork was just about complete and duty waiver almost granted.  We expect the rest to go through today, which means that the laptops will be free to go and on their way… to Freetown?  DHL has been trying to convince us on more than one occasion that, once our shipment is released, we will have to pick it up from their office in Freetown and transport it to Kenema ourselves because they only have the resources to transport small packages all the way to Kenema… even though the receiving address in the contract is in Kenema (not Freetown)… and even though DHL actually has a functioning office in Kenema… and even though there were two big painted yellow DHL vans outside the office that would have plenty of space…

We were told we would be getting the final signature today (Monday) and receiving the laptops sometime later this week. So now we’re waiting with our fingers crossed…

XOs please…
June 24, 2009, 10:21 pm
Filed under: Rants and Raves

Over the first few days in-country our team has been very impressed with the level of enthusiam, but much more importantly, the level of preparation our partnering organizations have shown. As a result, we have almost finalized the list of participating children, community leaders are on-board and actively contributing to the development of the project, and we have made great strides towards solidifying cheap (relative to our original options), reliable internet.

If only we could get our laptops….

In an attempt to avoid the hassle of arranging the transportation of 100 laptops from Freetown to Kenema (a 5 or so hour journey), we asked DHL to deliver the shipment of XOs directly to Kenema (instead of the UNICEF office in Freetown). This may not have proven to be the best idea, as our shipment is now stuck in Customs and they want about $750 to release them (unlike the shipment for the other Sierra Leone team who had them delivered to UNICEF and had to pay no such fee). As these laptops are a charitable donation, gifted with the intent of advancing eduation within Sierra Leone we are quite dissapointed that the government would delay their arrival and impose such illegtimate  fees.

Despite the profound efforts made by one of our contacts, Joseph Zombo, and others, attempts at getting the XOs released have been fruitless thus far. Thankfully, we are in contact with members of the other Sierra Leone team (who have valuable contacts and are anxious to help), DHL, UNICEF, OLPCorp, and, our team met with the Anti-Corruption organization a few days ago (who offered to help if we were unable to resolve the matter ourselves). Our hope is that everything will be resolved in a timely fashion, without part of our operating budget having to be diverted to pay unnecessary Customs fees, and we can start classes sometime next week!

Again, a special thank you to all of those who have been working with us to try and resolve this issue! Your efforts are greatly appreciated.

Routers, and adapters, and transformers oh my!
June 15, 2009, 2:00 am
Filed under: Technology

Ok, so what equipment will we need to bring to make this whole thing work?

That was the question that was placed before us. In the chats and the seemingly hundreds of e-mails that were sent amongst the group, we were told that the equipment we would need to bring consisted of routers (2, maybe 3?), CAT5 cabling (site specific), USB sticks (number up to us),  power strips, and maybe a switch/hub (what is that anyways?)…

Alrighty, not too bad, some ambiguity understandably but we can handle that.

And after much debate, and conversations with people who actually know something about setting up computer networks, and questions still going unanswered, our equipment list now consists of the following.

1) 3 Linksys wireless routers, model WRT54G, loaded with custom firmware (specifics undetermined). We are not planning on using a switch, but instead using one of the routers as the “mama” router, and then setting the other two as access points. The newer WRT54G model that you buy today is more energy efficient than its previous releases and comes with a power cord that accepts universal voltages, which is great, and will only need UK plug adapters. For the one older router that we already have, we will also be bringing with us a 50-watt transformer (specifics below)

2) CAT5 cable (or networking wire, or ethernet wire, all pretty much one and the same). We still haven’t determined the exact amount. But, since I will be joining the rest of the team a week or two into the project, we actually have the advantage of being able to have me bring last minute items. We would have our organization on the other end do some measurements, but our internet setup is at this point undetermined and communication difficult.

3) 5 UK plug adapters with built in surge protection. These nifty little guys will serve our personal computers, the server, and the “mama” router.

4) 10 UK plug adapters with no surge protection. These are for our personal XO laptops and tools etc…

5) 2 50-Watt voltage converts. These voltage converters can handle up to 50 watts, but should only be used continuously with a power draw of 25 watts or less. We ran into an issue of deciding whether or not our access points will draw more than that. Our most recent calculations say they can’t handle it, but Reuben (our technical leader) assures us that they are sufficient (because when voltage goes up – as it will for us going from 110V to 220V – the current, or amps, goes down), which is something we did not consider. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see…

6)2 1875-watt voltage converts. For bigger items.

7) We are currently bringing 8 USB drives – probably gonna get more.

8) Fun stuff like t-shirts, certificates, buttons, gold stars, Sharpies to decorate the laptops with, etc…

9) Stuff for a tool kit. In one of the documents that was provided to us there was a long list of tool kit items that we should bring. We will be bringing what we can of the following items, but most of it can probably be bought over there as well, (anti-static wrist strap, #0 & #1 phillips head screwdrivers, flathead screwdrivers, headphones,  microphone, scre holders/sorters, multimeter, side cutters, needle-nose pliers, tweezers, tape measure, soldering station, a recorder, component storage, USB/TTL-Serial adapter, hot glue gun, loupe (magnifying glass), Anti-static bags, printable shipping labels for shipping parts, packing tape, cushioning packing material

So there it is. From 5 items to many, many more.

We have to give a special shout out to Fry’s electronics where we spent the better part of a day but got a lot of great stuff. Also, to Yes Press for donating our awesome t-shirts, and the Davis Computer Doctor for donating a router.