Dr. Tony Colleraine, Ing. Roberto Estrada, Prof. Sergio Rebollar,
Ing. Manuel Salazar, Ing. Alfonso Rodriguez





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A Plan for a Community Network and Internet Presence for San Felipe, Baja California

Introduction and Objectives

In this paper, we discuss the various drivers for the development of a community network for the town of San Felipe, Baja California, Mexico, and outline the first phase of this project - bringing the Internet to the town.

Infrastructure developments are a necessary part of the growth of any town or city around the world. New access highways, water supplies, sewage and power plants are all typical examples. Such works, however, are extremely capital-intensive and can take many years to complete. By comparison, installation of a modern information and communication system for a town can be done relatively quickly, relatively cheaply, and can have a significant positive effect on the quality of life and the economic prosperity of the region. San Felipe is ripe for such a development because of its proximity to, and economic dependence on, the high technology border area between the Southwestern United States and Northern Mexico.

The intent of building a community network for San Felipe is threefold:

  • First, we wish to implement modern communications techniques so that our main revenue-producing customers (tourists) are afforded all the information access that they need and expect.
  • Second, we wish to use this project as an educational experience to allow all interested residents to acquire computer literacy skills.
  • Third, the very isolation of San Felipe, coupled with its proximity to Southern California, makes it an ideal "Petri Dish" community for performing relatively inexpensive experiments involving new technologies. Skilled help and spare parts are only a one day drive away if they are absolutely needed.
As a first step in this process, we have assembled a small consortium of interested, technically knowledgeable, people from the town, the telephone company (Telnor) and the CETYS (Centro Ensenanza Tecnica y Superior)University in Mexicali to establish an Internet connection to the outside world. This will be demonstrated to the public in April (1996) and the reliability of the microwave links across the desert will be assessed. Assuming that there are no surprises, we will set up a permanent data link to the CETYS Internet node in Mexicali and establish our own router, world-wide-web server and e-mail system in San Felipe. The results of our preliminary trials will be presented at the conference.

Demographics

In order to understand the unique features of San Felipe and the role which networking and communication can play, it is necessary to give a short demographic sketch of the area. The town of San Felipe is located on the East coast of the peninsula of Baja California approximately 130 miles south of Mexicali and the California border.

The population numbers about 20,000 people of which a growing number(presently around 15%) are retired American and Canadian citizens. About 80% of the population lives within 3 miles of the center of town. The remainder is scattered in camps along the beaches to the north and south. The principal business activities of the area are tourism and the shrimp fishing industry. The miles of deserted beaches are unrivaled in their beauty and the climate is close to ideal for nine months of the year. Hotels and camp sites are generally fully booked on weekends but the weekdays are quiet. This is because of the increasing tendency of the tourists from Southern California and Arizona to break their annual vacation into several weekend getaways to destinations within a 4 to 8 hour drive. Mid-July through early September is extremely hot and is generally a time for performing mental, rather than physical, work. This, however, is becoming the preferred visiting time for Europeans looking to discover a new Acapulco.

The region is very isolated; a single two lane highway runs North across the desert to Mexicali and the telephone system is carried by solar-powered microwave links spaced at intervals of 10 to 40 miles along the same general route. Electric power comes in on a 138kV transmission line across the mountains, which form the backbone of the peninsula, from Rosarito about 200 miles away on the Pacific coast. Instabilities in the electricity supply are common, particularly during the summer months, when storms in the mountains result in frequent lightning strikes. These mountains, the Sierra San Perdo Martir, rise at one point to over 10,000 feet and block most of the Pacific winter storms. The region is therefore arid desert but very powerful summer storms from the south can drop several inches of rain in an hour and cause major washouts. For this reason alone, wireless networks are highly desirable, even if just as a backup to cable systems.

Small camps dot the coastline of the Sea of Cortez (the Gulf of California)for about 15 miles to the North and 45 miles to the South of town but they have essentially no communications links to the outside world. (During the summer months, cellular communication can often be established with the Yuma or San Luis Rio Colorado transmitters, about 110 miles across the Gulf, which forms an excellent ground plane "mirror". Unfortunately, the cost of using such telephones for all but emergency voice calls is prohibitive.) An international airport has been built in San Felipe but this has not yet generated significant traffic because of the availability of only about 500 hotel rooms in the town. Small charter plane flights are, however, becoming increasingly common. Avid fishermen coming for 3-7 day cruises are the principal customers.

A major new driver in the development of the region is the El Dorado Ranch which occupies some 300 square miles of land in and around San Felipe. The Ranch caters to an increasingly affluent North American population which is choosing a lifestyle of "voluntary simplicity". Energy efficient houses are being built using such techniques as straw bale construction, and solar and wind energy systems are being used more frequently for individual dwelling power sources. A significant influx of people wishing to live in such a community is anticipated over the next few years. One of the consequences of this growing, technologically- aware, population is that there is a demand for new communications services, both for conducting business locally and for staying in touch with friends and family in other parts of the world.

The school system in San Felipe is also beginning serious education of the older students in the use and applications of computers. At the present time, the primary schools have about 2800 students in the age range of 4 to 11 years, the secondary schools have 800 students 12-15 years old, and the preparatory schools have about 400 students in the age range 15-17. College level education can presently only be obtained by transferring to a large city. We hope that we shall be able to provide distance-learning opportunities as an interim measure to establishing a small college in San Felipe. One secondary and one preparatory school each have about 12IBM-compatible computers which must be shared by the 400 pupils. The result is that an individual student can get only about one hour of actual “hands-on" experience in a week. Although this instruction is initially focused on the learning of applications such as spreadsheets and word processing, the potential power of networked computers is not lost on the local community. In particular, the Internet is seen as a very important tool in the future development of the region for providing information on events in the town (such as the Baja 250, 500 and 1000 races, the shrimp festival, sporting regattas, etc.) to attract tourists and in enhancing educational opportunities at all levels.

Over the past two years, the entire Telnor telephone network in northern Baja has been upgraded and is now fully digital. In San Felipe, the company presently has around 1000 telephone subscribers, but this is expected to grow substantially as people request connections to the computer network. Another very important development for this networking project is the impending installation of the first cellular phone transmitter site. This will enable us to reach out to the communities and camps within 15-25 miles of the center of town.

General Requirements for the Community Network

The following general requirements have been identified as being needed if the proposed network is to succeed:
  • The cost to the user must be acceptable and the ease of use must be high.
  • Educational opportunities for the children are generally rated as the highest priority, followed by enhancing the attractiveness of the town to the tourist and business visitor.
  • The secondary and high school pupils really want computers and networking. Linking the schools and obtaining more equipment for them will be crucial.
  • Education of the general public is also essential before they will buy and use computers. Those people with children in school are likely to be the ones most interested in getting computers into their homes.
  • Development of new business and job opportunities must occur.
Preliminary surveys indicate that these can be satisfied if we incorporate the following elements:
  1. The cost to the average user should not exceed about $5 per month; "power users" are willing to pay more.
  2. We will locate our Internet node close to the center of town and will provide a learning center with terminals for people to come in and use to practice exchange of e-mail with others (for example their children in the schools).
  3. Simple remote terminals using dial-up access will be assembled for installation in neighborhood mini-markets, again for anyone to log in and get mail, view the town calendar of events or search the "want ads".
  4. More affluent residents with telephone service will probably wish to buy a computer and use modem access to the network for "web surfing".
  5. Schoolchildren will undoubtedly learn how to build home pages and will be a valuable resource in helping to provide such pages for hotels, restaurants and shops that want to advertise to the tourist market.
  6. By extending our network to nearby hotels, we can enhance the likelihood for hosting small workshops and business meetings. This could help to fill empty rooms during the week and stimulate the development of the airport.


Project Guidelines

There is an important difference in executing projects in Mexico compared to the United States. These are best understood by the following inter-related points:

Graded Approach

Unlike the USA where standards and building codes are rigorously enforced (with a significant added cost penalty) the optimum way of structuring a project in Mexico is to use common sense and apportion the very limited resources where they will be most beneficial. Thus, for example, systems do not have to be 100% reliable; very good is quite acceptable.

Technology Transfer

In bringing new technology to an area such as San Felipe, it is important to involve the local population in performing as much of the work as possible. Hands-on experience in pulling cables, making connections, checking interfaces and configuring systems is extremely valuable. By enlisting enthusiastic high school students, for example, to help with both hardware and software tasks we will transfer pride-in-ownership to them at the same time that they are learning skills which will be useful in a developing job market. Mistakes will inevitably be made but these mistakes are a very valuable part of the learning process.

Use of Available Technology

By comparison with the USA, where planning generally focuses around using the latest equipment and technologies, this project in San Felipe can be fully successful with equipment and techniques that are on-the-back-shelf at this moment. Time is our friend here since today's computer equipment will likely be obsolete in a few months. We hope to find manufacturers who want to liquidate surplus stock at a substantial discount.

Phase I - Internet Demonstration

The San Felipe experiment will start in the spring of 1996 with a demonstration to the town of what the Internet is. Telnor is now installing a64 Kb/s line from its switch in San Felipe to a small shopping center, Plaza Canela near the El Cortez Hotel, and will connect the other end to the CETYS node in Mexicali. CETYS personnel will bring a router and terminal equipment to provide a local network for connection to this digital link and MIATECH, an Apple/IBM dealer in Mexicali, will bring Macs and PCs equipped with Ethernet cards to connect to this network. Hands-on demonstrations will beheld on two weekends in April so that residents and visitors will be able to try out information searching and web browsing for themselves.

At the same time, we will gain experience in the behavior of the microwave links and find out what difficulties, if any, arise as the desert heating, the winds and the "blinding" of antennas by the late afternoon sun affect the reliability of the connection. The demonstration will also enable us to conduct a survey and get feedback on the types of service and equipment that people will be most interested in. We can also make a preliminary evaluation as to what are the best approaches to use in conducting a general community education effort.

Phase II - Establish a Permanent Internet Presence and Begin Network Installation

Following the demonstration phase, we hope to attract some seed funding to set up the Internet node and a small store-front learning center in town and also collaborate with the schools to get them fully involved in connecting themselves to the server. As funds permit, dial-up access lines will be added so that townspeople with phone lines and computers can also connect. Building the infrastructure and training a base of computer-comfortable users will be high on our priority list during this phase. Providing web pages and e-mail accounts are a potential source of some revenue to help us with these educational efforts.

The Future

We wish to develop a simple remote terminal that will work in conjunction with a cellular modem and can be powered from a 12 volt car battery and solar charger. Such a system could be placed in more remote locations and be set up to log in once or twice a day to exchange mail and files for a camp community. The advent of the new spread-spectrum 2.2 GHz local area network systems looks very promising for applications such as piping large data streams to and from a remote community such as the El Dorado Ranch. However, changes in the Mexican telecommunications laws, and the possible desire of the Government to auction off these frequencies may make their use uneconomic. We shall have to wait and see whether their application for community networks such as this would be exempt from regulation.

Conclusions

San Felipe is an isolated community which has significant challenges in the field of communications. The present telephone system has an installed base representing only about 5% of the population. If voice communications remains its primary focus, the growth rate will likely remain modest. By contrast, the desire of both the younger generation of Mexicans and the older generation of Americans and Canadians for better, multi-media, communications makes the establishment of a community computer network a highly desirable goal; the telephone company will be a major beneficiary of this need for connectivity.

Low cost, low energy, solutions for communications terminals is also a great need for a society such as this. We believe that the San Felipe team, working in conjunction with a computer equipment manufacturer, can help develop such devices and prove them out in a realistic and reasonable scale experiment. We hope to be able to position San Felipe as a model community for the development of similar cost-effective technologies which would be geared for communities in Mexico and Latin America in general.

Dr. Tony Colleraine, Ing. Roberto Estrada,
Prof. Sergio Rebollar, Ing. Manuel Salazar, Ing. Alfonso Rodriguez
San Felipe Internet Project
A.P. 247, San Felipe
21850 Baja California
Mexico