Meet Rael Lissoos, a economist turned geek entrepreneur. While I have been talking about Village Telcos, Rael has been out building one in Orange Farm, a township about an hour south of Johannesburg.
Rael’s company, Dabba.co.za, provides inexpensive voice and data services to residents, businesses, and community centres in Orange Farm. What is remarkable about this is that he has been able to set up most of his telecommunications infrastructure inexpensively using Open Source software and commodity wireless devices. Through this service he is able provide free local calls to anyone within wireless range of his network. Dabba interconnects with Telkom, Vodacom, and CellC offering Dabba callers the possibility of connecting into the national fixed and mobile networks. Dabba offers this service at the same cost as making a phone call from a community container, with the added convenience that users can do so from their own homes.
Payment is made, as you might expect, via pay-as-you-go cards. Dabba offers both voice and data pay-as-you-go cards. A voice voucher is seen at the right. Rael says that initially the pay-as-you-go system was as simple as printing access numbers on paper and sealing them in paper envelopes. Dabba is more sophisticated now and prints elegant looking vouchers which are heat-sealed in plastic envelopes.
Rael has been working on VoIP service delivery in Orange Farm for a couple of years now and has experimented with a wide range of wireless radios and antennae. He has now settled on simple commodity wireless routers such as the Linksys WRT54G range of routers. These devices can have their internal software (firmware) replaced with Open Source software that allows the router to run mesh networking and VoIP applications. This means that a R700 router can be turned into a powerful device for delivering local voice and data services. Each router is capable of networking (meshing) seamlessly with others nearby creating an inexpensive web of connectivity. Combined with software to manage access and billing, you have the seeds of a powerful local telephony and data solution.
Dabba delivers local voice access to the network through a pre-configured VoIP phone. The SMC handset to the left is an example of a wireless VoIP phone. As an example, it is still a bit expensive at about R1000 per handset. Rael reckons that wireless VoIP phones can be found (in quantity) for under R500 each.
Dabba have also been providing local phones by mashing up inexpensive SIP phones and wireless access points. The Dabba user at the right is using a typical SIP phone with wireless connection. Costs for this type of phone are also in the R500 range. It is an interesting question as to whether having a “fixed” wireless phone in one’s house is perceived to have lower or equal value to having something like the SMC phone above.
Dabba offers pay-as-you-go data vouchers as well. Anyone accessing the Internet via Dabba’s wireless mesh is presented with a login screen to validate their voucher. While this is pretty straightforward at the moment, local access control could be connected with local advertising, presence, or a variety of features tuned to the local community and economy.
Dabba also offers “Public Phone Username” cards (seen at right) which allow users to access phone services from any phone on the Dabba network. Last but not least, because Dabba is a value added network (VAN) service provider in South Africa, they are able to offer their users their own telephone numbers dialable from any telephone network. This is getting very close to a full-service yet low-cost telephone network.
Dabba have been extremely innovative in how they deploy access points in the community. In some cases, they have partnered with local business such as the funeral parlour, pictured at left. In other cases, they have hosted access points in local houses in exchange for free access for the householder. Most ambitiously they have negotiated with the local sportsplex to set up solar-powered access points on top of the lighting towers illuminating the sports field. I think this kind of organic, local engagement is critical to the success of initiatives like this.
I think the time has arrived in South Africa for this model of entrepreneurship to take off. In fact, we may be nearing a “perfect storm” for the growth of such business models. Regulation is on the verge of allowing any VAN to operate as a telephone company. Even as we speak Cisco is investing in training in technically savvy entrepreneurs in South Africa in low-cost wireless deployment. At the same time, the the Meraka Institute at the CSIR is working on perfecting mesh networking protocols that Dabba are planning to roll out in their network. Here in my roll at the Shuttleworth Foundation, I am both keen to see Dabba succeed in South Africa and keen to see the business model for a “Village Telco” commoditised into something that could spread virally very quickly. If you’re interested in helping build a Open Source low-cost Village Telco model that would help others get started like Dabba, please get in touch.