December 12, 2013

TECHNOLOGY: How Remote Places Can Get Cellular Coverage by Doing It Themselves.

A four-hour drive from the nearest cellular coverage in the remote highlands of Papua, Indonesia, a new kind of guerilla telecom network is operating, albeit outside the law, using a cheap base station roped into a treetop.

The technology could provide a new model for self-managed “last mile” mobile coverage in the world’s hardest-to-reach areas, where traditional top-down telecommunications business models don’t work.

The project was set up by a team from the University of California, Berkeley. The resulting network is now operated by a tiny stand-alone telecommunications company run by a local NGO, with a laptop for local billing and a satellite connection to the rest of the world. The network relies on Swedish phone numbers because no local telecommunications company would provide them.

“It’s a telco-in-a-box that we put in a tree,” says Kurtis Heimerl, a developer at Range Networks and grad student at UC Berkeley who led the project. “It’s a demonstration that these populations can profitably and sustainably manage their own networks. We don’t need telcos to do this; these communities can do this by themselves.”

I imagine the telcos will be willing to do a lot to quash this sort of thing. They might even go so far as to provide service themselves . . . .