VOIP in Rural Uganda

It’s been nearly a month since we last posted on the blog. Sorry.

I’ve managed to escape the ’flu-like lurgy which has been floating around, and have been working on my next communications-related project at Kisiizi: a new telephone system.

I blogged several months ago about a phone system. At the time, I had hoped that the system donated a few years ago (and 20 years old) would do well. I’m not a believer in ‘modern for the sake of it’, but I do think it’s sometimes worth making a decision not to install gear if it isn’t viable in the long-term. I’m afraid the Mitel telephone system has fallen into this category: too old; one broken line already; not sure about the quality of the Chinese cabling bought in Kampala.

Mulling options other than this unit, I started to think about Voice over IP as a possible solution. The network here now reaches pretty-much anywhere we need a phone, and with Asterisk as an exchange, we can have an expandable system which relies on commodity hardware we can buy in Kampala (namely, a Dell Optiplex) in case disaster strikes.

So, after some thought and the construction of a test system, we’ve bought the following gear:

  • 1 Dell Optiplex desktop machine as the server
  • 12 2-port Grandstream HT502 analogue telephone adaptors (these allow you to plug in a normal phone, but send the data across the network)
  • 14 1-port Sparklan wireless ATAs (as above, but they connect to the wireless network for locations without a wired segment: mostly staff housing)
  • 1 8-port Grandstream GXW4008 ATA for the admin block

The software we’re using is an open-source Linux distribution called Trixbox. I’m really impressed. It’s basically a conglomeration of Asterisk and FreePBX, a web front-end for Asterisk, with a few extra bits included. But it just works. An hour after sticking the CD in the drive, we had a working telephone system, with voicemail, menu systems, conferencing, queues, everything you could possibly want (and lots we’ll never use!).

The suppliers of the ATAs, a UK company called OxfordTEC also kindly donated some gear for us, which includes 2 VOIP phones, which plug straight into the computer network, and two wireless IP phones. I’ve been corresponding with Chris at OxfordTEC for the last few weeks, and they’ve been really helpful in getting stuff sorted out for us. Some electrical engineers visiting Kisiizi have kindly brought all the gear out.

It’s early days yet, but Edson and I have spent the week configuring the ATAs, and we’ve put a few phones around the site. So far, everything seems to be working nicely.

Updates to follow (hopefully in less than a month!).

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