a network for the unconnected
In 2035, NASA plans to have astronauts living on Mars—54.6 million kilometers from their home on Earth. They will be making the first steps to live off the land and lay the foundation for a home there. It goes almost without saying that when they land—with the exception of a single satellite to communicate with Earth—they will be cut off from the network that many of them were raised with: the Internet.
It’s a small matter for those astronauts—all of them will have been college educated, and they’ll have a speed dial back to some of the smartest scientists on Earth to answer any remaining questions.
However by 2035 there will still be another group—much larger and much closer to home, that will never experience the internet in their lifetime.
They are the unconnected.
Mahala Network is an inexpensive, distributed, lightweight platform for bringing digital connectivity to the more than 4 billion people who don't have access to the internet.
In our world of 7 billion people, more than half are not able to connect to the Internet.
“There are indications that Internet growth is slowing, as broadband services extend out of urban areas to more remote, less densely populated areas.”
— UNESCO Report 2015
“While most Americans have Internet in their homes, only half of all adults who make less than $30,000 per year do. And 15 percent of Americans don’t have access to the Internet at all…”
–Pew Research 2013
“The western world has established something of a monopoly not only on the Web, but on its content as well…which means that many individuals across the globe remain unaware of the Internet’s potential or cannot use it, because there is little or no useful content in their native language.”
— The Broadband Commission for Digital Development
“Imprisonment of the mind is as much a sin as imprisonment of the body. We must free people limited by the lack of Internet access.”
— U.S. Senator Cory Booker
A Little Bit of History
In the early 1900s, radio’s effect on the world looked similar to the step change brought about by the Internet today. Marconi’s wireless signal allowed individuals hundreds of miles away to communicate with each other. The communication boom founded new industries, transformed the way we shared information and dramatically improved the way we do business. Like the Internet, after a brief surge of innovation by amateurs, radio became regulated, commoditized and restricted.
Innovation continued, however, and fueled by the first and second World Wars, the price of components dropped making it easy for anyone with the time and interest to construct their own radio and broadcast and receive all around the world. Each radio operator became a node on a distributed network, providing a repeater to send the message along, a mentor to provide guidance to less experienced operators, or a broadcaster with a call sign that identified them to their audience. Unlike the Internet there is no “trunk” line to connect the continents, there is no infrastructure controlled by a media company, and inside the bands set aside for shortwave broadcast there is no regulation or surveillance. It cannot be shut down short of physically going out to collect the equipment by hand. For more than 50 years, there has been a radio revolution led by amateur enthusiast “ham” radio operators.
Digital technology has experienced a similar leap forward, driving lower prices for components and spurring innovation. We are at a critical intersection where a similar digital revolution is possible.
Mahala Network brings technology together to exploit innovation instead of individuals.
Understanding Mahala Network
mahala is a Bantu word that means "community"
Mahala is a network for the unconnected—a device that creates its own standalone network that can be brought into any community anywhere in the world. There are no assumptions about power requirements, wired or wireless connectivity or even proximity. It just works out of the box
Mahala looks just like a cell phone with an integrated solar panel and substantial internal storage. When the device is assigned to an individual it is biometrically encrypted to them and they are assigned a unique identifier for life. They receive some basic training about how to create, publish and share their own content within the network, how to access information already on the network and how to request information that isn’t available yet.
As more people in the community are given Mahala devices, the network gets stronger. Individuals can make calls and send messages to each other—each device connecting securely to the devices around it to form an encrypted chain from the sender to the receiver.
Many small villages today are serviced by semi-regular vehicles that provide them with supplies from nearby towns and cities. With Mahala, the driver becomes a conduit for more than supplies—they are a link to other villages that frequent the same cities. Information from those other villages is cached on his device opening up opportunities for messages to be securely sent and received and a basic framework for trade that didn’t exist before. The network takes on elements of a digital Pony Express, or a truly global interlibrary loan.
And with the encryption that is built directly into Mahala Network is the framework to support an economy. Every transaction on the network, whether passing along an encrypted message, or bringing data from a sister network is rewarded with a small digital payment using blockchain based cryptocurrency. This is more than a passive digital income stream. It allows neighboring villages to do business using a standard currency without relying on financial institutions that are infrequently available or prohibitively expensive.
Mahala is for Creators
Mahala provides a flexible platform for developing rich media content and experiences without the need or know-how to set up scalable servers or application stacks. Create content and applications in the languages you know. When any individual on the network solves a problem, it’s easy for others to replicate your success.
Mahala is for Learners
If the Internet is any indication, content on a new network grows slowly. Individuals can search portals in their own language for the information they want and request it. Think of it as inter-library loan for the Internet.
Mahala is for Sharing
Mahala makes it easy for digital entrepreneurs to share what they do. Whether they secure their creation so only they can see it, share it with specific people or groups, or broadcast it to the entire Mahala network (or back out to the internet), the individual is always in control.
Mahala is for Earning
Mahala comes with blockchain based crypto-currency built in, meaning that you’re compensated when you pass an encrypted message along or share content. Over time, this creates a secondary economic system within the community that simplifies saving and provides greater financial stability in areas that struggle economically.
Mahala is Secure
Security starts on the device with an encrypted chip, end-to-end encrypted traffic, and biometric security with fingerprint and facial recognition to keep your information safe. And every user is assigned a unique identifier—a “call sign”—for life.
Mahala protects your Privacy
Mahala doesn’t track what anyone does on the network, and usage data is only stored locally on the phone to improve the user experience.
Mahala is no larger than your Phone
Everything you need is already there, monitor, keyboard, solar cells, antenna—and because of the explosive growth of the worldwide smartphone market the individual components are less expensive than ever. Plus it’s portable enough to take everywhere you go, building out the network and connecting you to more information.
Mahala is not the Internet
But when individuals get access to the Internet, it can link in to access additional content. Mahala Network is a completely offline network, linking devices to each other instead of to a central network.
A Few Examples
Sibongile is a teacher at Sunshine Academy in Kwabutele township in rural South Africa. Her 40 students walk on average six miles to attend school for four hours each day. Mahala Network would allow Sibongile to publish her curriculum and lesson materials on a site for students to access even when they aren’t in the classroom. In addition, when Sibongile travels into town, she would be able to connect to a much larger network—and even the internet at a café—to make additional multimedia, books and other supplementary material available to her students.
Naresh is a seventh generation Nepalese farmer. He and several other farmers in his village work together as part of a cooperative to share resources and mitigate risk. Mahala Network would allow Naresh and the other farmers to communicate with neighboring villages about crop blight and other disease that today is difficult to predict or prevent. It also helps the farmers determine a fair price for their goods, something that today is determined by the inexperienced driver who collects the crops from several villages.
Victoria is a single, middle-aged woman with three children living in the Appalachian region of the United States. Her husband was a coal miner who died a few years ago from lung disease. Victoria makes money by selling homemade soap at a farmer’s market in a town 30 miles away. Mahala Network would give Victoria and her children access to a communication network and educational material to help them raise their standard of living. It would also provide a platform for Victoria to set up a small business page, letting her take orders which would help her to better manage her inventory and her finances.
Why do this Now?
“The digital divide is proving stubbornly persistent in terms of access to broadband Internet, including the challenge of extending last-mile access to infrastructure to remote and rural communities”
The Broadband Commission for Digital Development
In the early 2000s I went to sub-Saharan Africa as a volunteer. While there I spent many years in rural townships, small villages with whole sections built from cinder block and corrugated steel that lacked water, power and many other amenities of modern life. Inside these towns were inventors and innovators, who solved problems every day not just to stay alive but also to thrive. Children and adults alike were eager to learn not just about where I came from, but what I knew and how I knew it. Even when I would venture into the wealthier cities, Internet access was too expensive for many people, forcing them to wait for “off-peak” hours to access it at lower rates.
When I returned to the United States I lived in the inner-city among people who lacked the resources to get education—much less connect to the internet. Later I moved to rural America and spent time volunteering in the Appalachian portion of Tennessee where conditions are comparable to what I saw in Africa but much more geographically dispersed.
As a technologist, a former public servant and a volunteer, I’ve had the benefit of a high degree of exposure to great mentors and emerging technologies. Elements of this initiative were inspired by great development platforms like Mark Benioff’s Salesforce—famous for its 5-minute upgrade windows; Matt Mullenweg’s WordPress—powering more than a quarter of the internet; Paul Hainsworth’s Firechat and Meshkit, which provide a framework for encrypted offline peer-topeer messaging; Juan Benet and the Interplanetary File System, designed to provide a network for when mankind finally reaches the stars; Adam Fisk who I met during a Tech@State event while working for the U.S. Department of State who showed me Lantern—a sponsorship based peer-topeer VPN for providing uncensored access to the internet; The Blockchain and associated cryptocurrencies that promise to establish a parallel financial system where value is created by participation; Craigslist—the largest internet company that survived the dot-com bubble despite being free and it’s apparent simplicity; the Sakshat tablet—a $30 tablet developed for India using components from the original iPhone with the promise of a device in the hands of every Indian.