Villagers in Mexico build their own networks

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IDG Connect – 05-06-2015

This is a contributed piece by Francis Letourneau, COO of Nuran Wireless

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is now a powerful cheerleader in the campaign to connect the half of the world’s population that doesn’t have access to the internet. His internet.org initiative is focused on providing the unconnected with a basic package of free data services which act as a gateway to the internet. The idea is that it will show people how their lives can be enhanced by the internet so that they will be willing to pay for it.However, around 1.5 billion people in emerging markets are still not covered by a reliable cellular network and are unable to make a simple voice call. It’s very expensive to build networks in rural areas where distances are vast, communities spaced widely apart with poor transport connections.To make matters worse, telecom operators are simply not interested in investing in areas where people have less to spend on their bills than those living in urban areas.However, a new model for running voice networks has emerged from the state of Oaxaca in South West Mexico where a telecommunications non-profit called Rhizomatica is helping communities take control of their destiny and build their own voice networks.

San Juan Yaee is a seven-hour bus ride from Oaxaca City. With a population of around 1600, most of whom are subsistence farmers, the community had been left behind by the digital revolution. Telmex, the dominant telecoms operator in the country, knows that it will never be able to make a profit from communities like San Juan Yaee and is not interested in building a network there ever.

Consequently, the people of San Juan Yaee had phones that they could only use if they walked to the top of the steepest hill, 20 minutes away, to catch a signal from a distant network. In the village itself the phones were only useful as cameras or paperweights.

Tired of waiting, and with the advice and guidance of Rhizomatica, the people of San Juan Yaee invested ninety thousand pesos – about US$6,000 – to buy equipment from Canadian company NuRAN Wireless. NuRAN’s GSM LiteCell is a low-power, low-OPEX GSM base station, designed specifically to provide voice services use in rural and low-density, lower-ARPU urban areas in emerging markets.

NuRAN has filled a large gap in the telecoms market. Traditional telephone technology developed in the west was designed for densely populated, prosperous markets. It is not suitable for the unique challenges posed by remote rural areas; it is too expensive, uses too much power and needs highly skilled engineers to deploy and maintain.

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