The toughest part of the installs is getting permission. To set foot inside a government-run camp, groups need authorization from the Greek army and police force, the interior ministry, and UNHCR. Even with all the right seals, stamps and letters, NetHope was frequently denied access in the beginning. Then word spread among officers that some of them could get wifi on the job if NetHope was allowed to work. The gates began to swing open more easily.
Power in the camps is also a constant problem. At Sinatex, a former factory that now houses 600 refugees from the shuttered Idomeni squatter camp, there was plenty of power around the perimeter of the factory building. Unfortunately, some Syrian men were busy ripping out and splicing the wires in order to run private lines into their families’ tents. MacRitchie, unfazed, told the team to place a sticker on every wire connecting the wifi access points with the following words in Arabic: “if you remove this, the internet will go down.” The hope was that even in a refugee camp, no one wanted to be that guy.
Occasionally, NetHope has channeled refugees’ ingenuity toward a higher purpose. In Lagadikia, it had hired a Syrian electrical engineer to build 30 charging stations. In other camps, men looking for a break in the monotony have been eager to help, even if just to hold the ladder.
Refugee-camp wifi is a lot like in-flight wifi, and with the same list of downers: No porn, violence or malware, no video streaming, and a ceiling on bandwidth per user. This is all for good reason, Altman explained. “Signal loss means that even a 20MB DSL line will serve us 2-4MB,” roughly the same as airplanes. “If you divide that by one hundred users at a time, you’ll see why we cap at 128KB of data per user. We don’t want a single person hogging all the bandwidth.”
“In Haiti, they held up signs that said ‘I am hungry,’” Isaac Kwamy, NetHope’s director of emergency response, told me. “Here, they hold up their phone to say, ‘we need wifi.’ We need to tell the world that access to information is aid.”