Scaling the roofs of Maskwacis to build a mesh network

Last month, an acquaintance of mine posted this in a Facebook group:

Who wants to come install networking equipment under the supervision of Bruce Buffalo the weekend of May 12? We will be camping on the Saturday night near Maskwacis (about 2.5 h drive north).

No experience required but come ready to learn from the man himself!

For those who haven't seen Bruce's story:

Camping! Networks! No experience required! Three of my favourite things. I volunteered.

Free broadband for Maskwacis

Bruce Buffalo is founder of The Mamawapowin Technology Society (formerly known as “Maskwacis Fibre”). Mamawapowin is the Cree word to describe “the act of coming together.” Bruce is a self-taught engineer with a goal of deploying free broadband access to everyone living in Maskwacis, Alberta. He is trying to provide community members with access to essential services that are otherwise unavailable or prohibitively expensive. Cell network coverage is non-existent in much of Maskwacis, and telephone and internet services are too pricey for many residents who live on lower fixed incomes.

This is about more than just surfing the net for Bruce and the Mamawapowin Technology Society. He believes that free access to the web will give his community opportunities, vital resources, and education to bridge the digital divide. Safety concerns are also a factor. Residents with access to wi-fi can make VoIP telephone calls for urgent communications.

A weekend adventure

I first learned about Bruce’s free community wi-fi deployment by way of the Al Jazeera documentary (above). We interacted on social media due to connections through Cybera, but hadn’t yet met in person. Bruce is a humble man and would never acknowledge it, but he’s become a bit of celebrity in the internet access advocacy world. I was keen to finally meet him, and, per the Facebook post — “ready to learn from the man himself.”

Three weeks later I was driving north on a Saturday morning with two engineers affiliated with the University of Calgary’s Amateur Radio Club and the IEEE Special Interest Group on Humanitarian Technology (SIGHT), plus a grade 11 student (!) whose claim to fame is launching high altitude balloons. We met Bruce at his family’s home on the Ermineskin Reserve, after having driven too far down the wrong Range Road and dragging the bottom of the car over miles of poorly graded gravel.

Upon arrival, we loaded up Bruce’s truck with Ubiquiti antennas, radios, and access points. Until this year, equipment has either been paid for out of pocket by Bruce, or had been donated by documentary viewers, or Swiftfox.net and VelocityNetworks.ca (two wireless Internet service providers [WISPs] based in Southern Alberta).

We swung by the Wetaskiwin campground to pitch our tents in the daylight, then made the requisite pit-stops at Canadian Tire and Tim Horton’s before continuing on to the Samson Cree townsite.

Entering a network black-out zone

Maskwacis serves four reserves of Cree First Nations, known together as the Four Nations: Ermineskin Cree Nation, Samson Cree Nation, the Louis Bull First Nation and the Montana First Nation. The Samson Cree townsite is the most densely populated locale and has been the first focus of Bruce’s network deployment. I lost my mobile network connection immediately upon turning off Hwy 2A into the townsite.

At the first home, we passed equipment and cabling up to Bruce. He darted around the roof effortlessly while I learned to cut and crimp cat5 cables. There was no need to drill a hole in the exterior wall to feed wires through, as there was already a hole near a window, borne of rot. Once inside, Bruce finished off the connection, then configured the access point from a laptop. Boom. Residents of the block can now connect to the internet (after agreeing to the terms of service).

We piled into the truck and continued on to the next home. After a cursory inspection, Bruce decided this location was better left for another day. (There were a few snarly feral dogs lurking in the backyard, and the roof was in rough shape. He preferred to do this one on his own.) At the next location, I joined Bruce on the roof for the install. In the time it took to perform the installation, we observed: the fire department respond to two separate lawn fires (during a fire ban); the comings and goings of the ‘gang houses’ down the street; a rez dog shaved to look like a lion; and a gorgeous prairie sunset.

The next morning we met Bruce at his sister’s home in the townsite and hung around while he pushed out firmware updates. Next, we proceeded to our final installation site of the weekend. It was Mother’s Day and there were half a dozen kids running around at a family gathering in the backyard of the house we were working on. Between cartwheels and piggyback rides, we showed them how to strip cables, and explained the purpose of Bruce’s project and the new dish on the back of the house.

It takes a village

Up until June 1, Bruce used his 25Mbps Xplornet connection as a network gateway, using repeaters to extend the signal to the surrounding community. This connection has a 500GB data cap. To avoid hitting that cap, Bruce had to set up content filtering to block streaming video. When Cybera heard about this data cap constraint, we set-out to find a way for Bruce to backhaul his community network onto a wireline connection.

We were able to get in touch with David E. Brown, the Dean of Indigenous Business at Maskwacis Cultural College (MCC). We learned that the college had a 100Mbps connection to the Alberta SuperNet. Given that the college operates during business hours, their connection was left largely unused in the evening, when Bruce’s wi-fi network is most active. Bruce and the college negotiated a plan to share the bandwidth, re-allocating it to either the college or the community wi-fi network, depending on the time of day.

On May 29, Bruce re-architected the network with the help of a tech from Swiftfox (the Airdrie-based wireless WISP). They moved the internet gateway from his home’s 25Mbps Xplornet connection to a fibre connection at MCC. The college and the Mamawapowin Technology Society now split the bandwidth 50/50, and there is no longer a data cap. Maskwacis Cultural College say they are  thrilled to support Bruce’s efforts because they know it will help their students gain further access to knowledge when they are off campus.

Today: Broadband. Tomorrow: Tech hub

Bruce says his future plans are to continue to build the free service in Maskwacis and expand this to other First Nations communities, and beyond. True to the new “Mamawapowin” name, he also plans to create a physical tech hub in the community where anyone can come and learn how to use the net and technology to connect, find opportunities, and become educated. I’m eager to see the Mamawapowin Technology Society expand its network footprint and its mission under Bruce’s capable leadership!


The weekend networking crew, from left: David Garrett, Bruce Buffalo,
Martin Berka, Will Robillard, Alyssa Moore