back to article The Reg explores technology in a remote aboriginal community

The author William Gibson is reported to have said the future is already here, it's just not very evenly distributed. I've recently seen plenty of truth in that utterance first hand, in the remote aboriginal community of Willowra, located about 300km north-west of Alice Springs on the land of the Warlpiri people. Willowra is …


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  1. Anomalous Cowturd

    Simple speed boost...

    A 4 or 5 watt Raspberry Pi or PogoPlug type Arm based box (tobacco tin sized) running a caching proxy server (Squid / Privoxy) will greatly speed up access, especially for frequently accessed pages.

    I can set you up with a more or less ready to go ISO. In fact, I will donate a Raspberry Pi with ready to go SD card if you want.

    Email me via elReg, they've got my address.

    1. gerdesj

      Re: Simple speed boost...

      I presume you'll be putting the cache in RAM otherwise the SD card wont last long.

      Perhaps a HD in a USB connected caddie might be wise and costs a few quid when the HD is an old spare lying around. A script could "find" it on boot, format ext2 and mount at /var/cache/squid and then Squid puts its cache dirs in. So when it dies, put in another disc and off you go.

      Wire the whole lot up to an old car battery (user supplied) fed by a cheap solar panel (bet there's a grant available locally) with some sort of USB output and job's a good 'un. Apparently there's quite a lot of sunshine thereabouts.

      It's probably cheaper to send the ideas, a cutting list and a bank transfer rather than shipping the hardware to the other side of the world. Mind you the Pi will still have to come from Wales ...



      1. Anomalous Cowturd

        Re: Simple speed boost...

        <sarc>Yes Jon, that's why my original offer was a ready to boot ISO.

        But thanks for your input.</sarc>

        The offer stands.

    2. cracked
      Thumb Up

      Re: Simple speed boost...

      I'm also only just down the road from Willowra, a bit less than 2000kms. And I too am an NBN satelitte customer (lucky me!).

      Other than the caching suggestions already made - And, in particular, well done to those offering stuff - there's not a great deal else - that's easy - that can be done.

      It's slow. Reliable, but slow.

      I can offer a couple of mad suggestions ... but I doubt you'll have the stomach, or the community will have the money (or the department/quango will have the budget).

      1. Have every household in the community apply for NBN Satelite. Get 50 dishes (or however many) stuck up on the community center roof. Pay for 50 separate ISP accounts on a monthly basis. "Bond" the connections together, so that all of the bandwidth is available to all machines on the network (if you see what I mean).

      (and, as someone has said, wirelss network the community, if applicable)

      You may need to hang on, until Malcolm has finished thinking about it all ...

      2. If there isn't one - and I couldn't find one - set up an ISP dedicated to serving such "Learning Centers". I think (though I can't prove it) that you might be amazed at the speed boost.

      (You may well need to do this to do No1 ... I believe "connection bonding" is much easier if the ISP does it - though I think a fancy VPN type thing might work?)

      3. There is (probably?) free software available - or fairly easily written - that can speed up downloading large files, across multiple (not bonded) internet connections, (by using the AddRange .NET commands ... asuming relevant servers support it). So it would be possible to download movies and other large files, and store them on the local network for later viewing (without needing to bond the actual connections).

      It would also be possible to have those downloads run in off-peak hours, allowing the communitty more bandwidth for adhoc activities during peak hours.

      Other than that: A well handled article. It's not an easy subject; and as you found out, there are no quick and easy answers. Well done :-)

      1. I. Aproveofitspendingonspecificprojects

        Re: Simple speed boost...

        "I'm just down the road from Willowra, a bit less than 2000kms. And I too am an NBN satelitte customer (lucky me!)"

        Yeah, mate, nip down the tucker shoppe in yer jeep and see if it really is a shed with 10 computers that look like yer can get at a car boot for 40 quid over here, cobbler. 3 million what? Wallabys? Sheilas?

  2. Mephistro
    Thumb Up

    Great article!

    And about the network speed...

    I know this may be a long shot, but you could try this:

    This page explains the theory and provides a download link.

    Basically, this little program stops your network card from waiting for a given number of packets before sending them together. I think this -waiting for several packets- could cause issues with the way your satellite box sends the packets.

    Testing it shouldn't take you more than five minutes, and I think it has a chance to fix the issue. The program can be used to change this parameter, or to set it back to its original value.

    Oh, and don't forget to look for bittorrent clients inside the network, or computers connected by WiFi from other buildings in the town. :0)

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    A long way from here

    I'd be more than happy to help out but Willowra is about 2200 km from me.

    Willowra is a prime candidate for some decent connectivity but I'm guessing NBN satellite is the best they can hope for. I'm less than 1km from the Bruce Highway and wireless is all I'm going to get.

  4. Denarius Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    not quite on topic but

    I have to question your statement that integration off homelands leads to problems ? After 30 plus years of something describable as a human reserve approach has failed to improve health or self esteem. The Torres Strait Islanders approach might be instructive. Culture and self of identity remain strong as they remember home islands and language, but mostly live on mainland where there is work. They go home on holidays. Interestingly I have heard racist rants against aboriginals followed by cheerful praise of islanders from locals in FNQ. Being seen to be self supporting helps broad based acceptance more than any PR driven mutlicultural day.

    There is is not much to do on those remote places, unless some kind of locally based industry or small business such as tourism on Bathurst Island. Some support for local business and getting better comms into the bigger of those communities would help. Fully agree that web access would reduce isolation while opening up a wider world. IHMO, something like Sype would be immensely popular once setting up sessions could be arranged with adequate bandwidth. Keeping contact with extended family fits I need I saw while reducing travel in dodgy vehicles on worse tracks.

    On the technical side, given the probability someone will want to grab violent pr0n, would a Smoothwall community edition firewall with some site blocking allow the kids to do their stuff without the inevitable "hey look at this" material getting in? ISOs available for free. Willowra and a few outstations had a reputation for being orderly, but other locations have an appalling rate of violence of all kinds. I suggest community leaders, where they exist might want this to be discussed at least.

    1. BlueGreen

      Re: not quite on topic but

      "On the technical side, given the probability someone will want to grab violent pr0n"

      Or other dodgy stuff, yeah, some controls may be necessary... Anomalous Cowturd's suggestion will work here; Squid has a *very* comprehensive URL/IP whitelist/blacklist management in the form of ACLs (I use them myself as an advert blocklist). However it is not trivial to set up. Perhaps we can provide a weekly update until they grow an admin over there. I might be able to help but squid is not something I mess with daily. Thoughts?

      1. BlueGreen

        Re: not quite on topic but

        and blocking adfarms & crap will make a big difference to their browsing speed.

        1. BlueGreen

          Re: not quite on topic but

          Actually they can block ad rubbish right now <>. Download the hosts file, unzip it into the right directory and I don't think you even have to restart. Very easy. Will suffice until a proper centralised implementation in the form of squid or other proxy gets done.

          Do it on one machine, check it works then apply to others when happy.

      2. Denarius Silver badge

        Re: not quite on topic but

        Good point BlueGreen. Squid is what Smoothwall uses as transparent proxy or blocking proxy mode. Smoothwall is easy to set up. have not done much with Squid since I used one to assist a worker with a pr0n habit who still needed net access. Happy to play with Smoothwall sandpits here to develop suggestions for Squid setup, I think there is already a blacklist for known illegal web sites/IP addresses in most jurisdictions that might be a start. Except Oz where such info is a state secret. {S}. Some one else suggested a windows solution using a downloadable block list which may be a simpler start.

        I prefer a centralised proxy for the reasons you suggest. Blocking the dynamic add crap would help immensely. I suggest NoScript on browsers may also help pages load quickly.

        As I am getting bored trying retirement a second time I will be going up Stuart Highway early next year on trip to my old barra holes and a friends grave. If any interest happy to drop in assuming usual dead tree carcass processed. As for using bonding of multiple sat links, not sure that would work without tuning of the etherbonding of all NICS. Users would still have a big lag anyway. Ironically, I might have the same slow satellite problem as big swamp 3G service here is poor as are the alternative "telcos". And I can see top of Telstra Tower in Canberra from front of my house.

    2. Simon Sharwood, Reg APAC Editor (Written by Reg staff)

      Re: not quite on topic but

      Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Denarius.

      I wasn't trying to suggest that integration causes problems, just to very quickly provide some context for readers around the world.

      As I say later on, I've no particular insight into how these communities can thrive. But the presence of some connectivity there certainly looks to have promising potential.

      1. Denarius Silver badge

        Re: not quite on topic but

        @Simon, thanks for reply. I was not sure if you were advised by types I refer to to as self appointed messiahs who cannot think of the central people as just people. Fully agree connectivity showing a wider world would be a great educational tool. Probably would help non-local staff a lot as I remember enjoying the isolation but bothered enough to mess with HF aerials. Wound up (pun intended) using high gain MW aerials feeding a communications receiver. Getting a mail plane once a week or less did make keeping up usual social connections hard. This matters because unless one lasts over 2 years as a local worker, one has little effect due to culture shock perhaps. I was told it takes a year to adapt. After 3 years I thought two was more like it. Began to know some locals a bit after that.

  5. Talie5in

    Get in contact with MageData in Australia, they specialize in remote locations of Australia and optimizing poorly setup satellite links (And big advocates of the Pi)

    Im sure they would be happy to help out a community that are focused on learning!

  6. tony trolle


    " the river is actually a broad, dry, sandy river bid" bid oh bed

    1. Denarius Silver badge

      Re: errrrrrrrrrrrrr

      @Tony, At the Todd River Regatta on wet year occasions, they have used big dozers to divert flood water away so Alice Springs Regatta could go ahead in the dry river bed. I love the NT, so much is screwy and fun. Really enjoyed my time working there.

      1. phuzz Silver badge

        Re: errrrrrrrrrrrrr

        I thought a dry river race was something that Terry Pratchett had invented in Lost Continent.

        I am pleased that it's a real thing.

  7. Irony Deficient Silver badge

    cultural conditions

    Simon, what piqued my curiosity about the photo of the PCs in the learning centre was the sign above them: “MEN’S SIDE”. In reading about the Warlpiri language, I found a cultural explanation for the sign. Are there other cultural conditions which those of us nowhere near Willowra should keep in mind as we try to think of things that might meet the needs of the Warlpiri people?

  8. Tim Starling

    Simple English Wikipedia

    A possible literacy resource:

    It is aimed at adult non-native speakers, as well as children.

  9. Tim99 Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    Avoid "managed" infrastructure

    I'm sure that the following is not an issue in this case, but it might be worth dissemination.

    I'm retired now, but have spent (a lot of) time getting our software working in remote and regional communities. A common problem is that of the "local expert". Typically it is someone from the very small local IT shop, who can smell public money and over-specs the job to an unbelievable degree - Or a council or community centre manager who has a main network up and running in their local offices, library, or community centre. Their "consultant" will tell them that they need to consolidate everything from the remote community into their main domain, citing that this is necessary for ease of management and security.

    Typically they will connect the remote systems to the local Windows AD forest using an ADSL or ISDN link. Surprisingly when nothing works, because they are waiting for a directory token down a flakey 1<Mb link, they will call out the expert consultant again, who will often suggest that their problems will be solved if they set up local replica servers. That does not help either.

    Generally, if the local politics allowed, we tried to help the end-user by simplifying everything such that they could be empowered to be self sufficient - Otherwise using Terminal Services/Remote Desktop Services would often work.

    I would recommend that everything is on an UPS, as power to these communities can be very flakey, and that consumer grade equipment is chosen as repairing/replacing professional kit is usually a nightmare. As a rule Windows 7 based stuff was OK-ish. Linux support locally is generally poor, as the council type guys almost exclusively know Windows. I have no personal experience with Windows 8, other than with seniors who only seem to use IE and mail. In a couple of Aboriginal communities that I worked with, Apple stuff was generally liked (It just works - Provided they kept the doors and windows shut to stop the local red dust getting inside their iMacs, where it was not generally feasible for them to clean it out themselves). Mac Minis were OK.

  10. jake Silver badge

    Good article, need more of this kind of thing.

    Especially the likes of:

    "TAFE-level studies (polytechnic for UK readers, community college in the USA)"

    Translation between English speaking cultures is important as our world becomes smaller, in a speed of communication way. "separated by a common language" & all that.

    I'll have a ponder on helping your cause. It's a good one.

  11. Colin Miller

    Link speed?

    Out of interest, what speed is the satellite link giving you? And is that the fastest contract available (with or without a dish upgrade)?

    1. cracked

      Re: Link speed?

      "Speed of Satellite link"

      Assuming it is an NBN (National Broadband Network) provided link (I don't think Simon says?), then it's not good; I ran this test on my connection a moment ago:


      Test run on 29/10/2013 @ 01:15 PM

      Mirror: Optus

      Data: 5 MB

      Test Time: 10.02 secs

      Your line speed is 4.47 Mbps (4465 kbps).

      Your download speed is 558 KB/s (0.55 MB/s).


      As you can see, calling it broadband is pushing the envelope quite a bit. I would imagine the Learning Center gets a bit better than the above, as I am "too far South"

      For general surfing it is just fine. It's very reliable from an always-on standpoint. Buying and downloading a game from Steam (or similar) ... well the folk at the Learning Center would find it much faster to walk to Darwin and buy it from EBGames.

      A bit of background, for non Aussies: The NBN backed satellite gig works as follows: A form is filled in, if no "commercially available product" can provide reasonable access to the web at the user's location. The NBN accepts the customer., after a bit of remote "checking". The kit needed on the user's end (dish, cable and "modem") is free of charge, as is the installation (by a contractor). The user must then select from a number of ISPs who are granted rights to offer a service to NBN Customers. Most ISPs offer a few packages, the only difference being the Monthly Bandwidth Allowance.

      While I can't prove it, evidence gathered from (such unreliable places as) "whirlpool" says that speeds vary widely between ISPs, times of the day, days of the week and dates in a month (I can vouch for the latter 3). So I think it likely a dedicated ISP - were one to be setup - would provide speed increases.

      As for the ... social policy ... side of this. I think a question to ask yourself, if you are not up to speed with this wider debate, is: Why is a community centre needed, several thousand kilometres from a major population center, in the middle of a desert? I'm afraid I come over a bit Bill-Gates about how much help wi-fi-via-balloon provides to poor, remote communities.

      1. Roger Jenkins

        Re: Link speed?

        I too am on the NBN satellite service. The nominal speed of which is 6 Mbs up and 1 Mbs down.

        The latency quoted in the article is a little higher than I would expect, it usually sits around 600-700 ms.

        Of course, if these users are sharing just the one connection between 10 computers its going to be vary slow.

        In my home the connection is shared between two boxes and if we both hit a browser button at the same time, there is an appreciable slowdown in response time, imagine that when 10 boxes are all hitting the net at the same time.

        In response to another poster, the equipment is supplied by NBN and is standard using a 1.2 metre dish. It remains the property of NBN and may not be interfered with or modified. So any or all changes to the setup may only occur from the ethernet port on the 'modem'.

        Sadly, it appears that the available bandwidth on the satellite as supplied by NBN is getting congested and unless the government decides to allow NBN to purchase more bandwidth then shortly all the available satellite slots will be used and no further users will be connected to the satellites (Ipstar and Optus). As a consequence of this speed complaints are starting to appear on the Skymesh (ISP) section of the Whirlpool forum and I'm sure that all satellite users with all ISP's (RSP's) are being affected.

        1. cracked

          Re: Link speed?

          Roger, you are quite right.

          I wasn't intending to bash any particular ISP, more to note that the same issue(s) exist across all of them - from what I can tell - from time to time.

          We are supposed - pre Malcolm's thinking time, anyway - to be getting a doubling of speed (12-meg line) if/when the new satellite was/is launched ... That should get users to somewhere between 1-2MB effective download. And I think another was envisaged, later this decade, doubling it again? (That said, even 5mb effective is hardly comparable with a mainstream connection, is it)

          However, you make the same point as me ... As more and more people get the satellite service, and want bandwidth caps comparable to standard internet connections, the system will become congested to the point of unuseableness (yes, I made that word up ... I think).

          While I was dealing with Telstra/NBN (and a few others) trying to avoid satellite and get any other connection method (and failing) people were - although before Malcolm's thinking time started - forecasting that Fixed Wireless would pick up much of the slack that was currently being shunted to satellite. There was a pretty firm belief that 3% would be the maximum number with no choice but satellite.

          That's still a very large number of households, given the constraints and expense of the technology. And I have my doubts as to whether or not Fixed Wireless will rollout as widely as some in the industry seem to believe?

          Maybe FTTN will be every bit as brilliant as Malc seems to believe it will be?

          (still, this isn't an NBN debate, so I'll leave it there ... So for hijacking)

  12. ZPO

    We had similar issues with connection speed via satellite in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Posters have already mentioned using a squid caching proxy which is spot on. Additionally, that squid cache, with properly tuned TCP settings, will greatly help the XP machines with small receive windows (RWIN). Google "Bandwidth Delay Product" for more information. If I recall correctly, has some of the best collected information.

    Another item that makes a world of difference is placing a couple caching DNS servers on the local network. Given how chatty Windows machines are with DNS queries, moving those off the satellite network and on to a local caching DNS server makes a world of difference.

    Finally, configure all the machines to download their Windows updates via the squid cache. Simply setting the "Internet Options" to use the cache doesn't do it. There were a couple of additional settings that had to be entered via the command line to make Windows Update use the cache.

    Once these three items were implemented, it was a night and day difference on the satellite connection. While it still wasn't a terrestrial multi-megabit DSL-like experience, things flowed much more smoothly and perceived speed was up by around a factor of 8-10.

  13. Henry Wertz 1 Gold badge

    squid alone helps...

    Even without any tweaks, I found squid on a Linux box does get higher speeds than an XP system will get directly. Not much to do about latency though -- the speed of light delay for a ping and reply is 500ms or so, and 1000ms or so is typical due to other delays of satellite access. And, as with any link, this latency will spike up further with channel congestion.

    PFSense is a pretty nice firewall setup... you load PFSense into a PC with some network ports (whatever type; it's runs on FreeBSD, but FreeBSD supports virtually all cards just like Linux) and it's like a wireless access point style web interface but with way more options. A word of warning, I installed squid3 on this and would have squid fail to restart after power failure, UFS filesystem interacts poorly with squid in this regard. I think swap.state gets corrupted, a "rm /var/spool/squid3/swap.state" before squid starts should force a (fairly slow unfortunately...) cache rebuild.

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Now on openstreetmap

    Just added what I can to Willowra in to openstreetmap.

    Have a look here:

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