Digital Merthyr

September 2013 - January 2014
Merthyr Tydfil, Wales (United Kingdom)

Digital Merthyr project logo Digital Merthyr is a network project developed in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales (UK). In Gellideg estate less than one third of the neighbours have Internet connection. As they become increasingly reliant on online access to essential services such as personal communication, banking, e-Government, etc. improving digital skills and Internet access is an urgent priority.

In partnership with Creative Coop, mobilitylab, Merthyr Valley Homes and local social enterprises, Routek has deployed a solution for an open, community-driven wireless network. The current prototype covers 40 homes, with a view towards testing the feasibility of scaling the initiative to more than 4,000 homes across both the Gellideg and the Gurnos estates.

Prior to the roll-out, during Autumn 2013, Routek worked on planning the technical aspects of the project (hardware selection, network design, devices configuration, testing, etc.). Given the characteristics of the project and the fact that the residents' homes would be grouped in rows of houses, a mixed cabled-wireless network was devised. The core of the network would be a 5 GHz wireless mesh, with so-called primary nodes connecting between them and covering most of the estate. Then, by means of Ethernet cabling, these nodes would reach the residents' homes. The users could then connect to the Digital Merthyr network with their devices (desktop computers, laptops, smart phones...) using their indoor equipment, a commodity router/access point (a secondary node) working in the 2.4 GHz.

During the design process, qMp (an open source firmware based on OpenWrt) was chosen as the operating system for the network devices. It is a firmware specially built for mesh network deployments that best suited the Digital Merthyr project requirements. Since both primary and secondary nodes used it, all the residents would be in the same network, allowing them to easily add more nodes, to directly exchange information between users and to publish services for the community.

In December 2013 Routek started the network roll-out by installing a wireless link connecting Merthyr Valleys Homes' headquarters and Gellideg Foundation. There, two primary nodes with 120º sectorial antennas working in the 5 GHz band were placed to provide coverage all over the Gellideg estate.
 
     
Wireless link between Martin Evans building (first, from the left) and Gellideg Foundation (third) with an intermediate hop at Sunny Bank (second). The fourth picture is a close-up of the 120º sectorial antennas of the primary nodes at Gelldeg Foundation.

Then, the rest of primary node was installed along several rows of houses, as well as the secondary nodes inside the residents' homes, to actually provide them access to their community network. Once the network was completed, point to point bandwidth tests between secondary nodes on opposite edges of the network provided speeds of up to 92 Mb/s (almost reaching the maximum speed of their 100Mb/s Ethernet ports).

   
Weekend training with Digital Champions (left), resident installing his own mesh primary node (center) and graph of the network (right).

After the deployment of the network, Routek provided assistance and training to Digital Champions (early adopters of the community network and more experienced users in Gellideg) on network topics such as IP addressing, wireless links and devices configuration. This way the residents themselves could expand the network by adding more primary nodes, allowing their neighbours to join the Digital Merthyr community.