Having funded and watched and occasionally participated in the wireless hacker space in Africa for the last few years, I have the sense of “waiting for the next leap forward”. Wireless hackers have been successfully building cantennas, woktennas, and waterbottletennas, to name a few. They’ve been flashing Linksys Routers with a variety of free firmware replacements and in general tinkering with WiFi in a very cool way. I say cool because I think tinkering is one of the best ways of learning about something and also because taking something apart is a way of demystifying technology and ultimately making it something that serves you as opposed to the other way around.
There have been quite a number of initiatives in this space, some grassroots, some donor initiated and most have been successful in crossing that first bridge, of developing a level of comfort in adapting a commodity technology to serve a local purpose. As I say, I think this alone is an important outcome. Having said that, it feels as if a certain “so-what” stage has been reached. If you have good connectivity, WiFi can be a natural way to distribute access and to forge local broadband links up to x kilometres away. However, connectivity in Africa is still both scarce and expensive. This means that there is limited utility to basic wireless solutions. Something more generically useful and applicable is needed.
Think Fon but for Rural Voice Services in Africa
That thing, I think, is a “village telco” and by that I mean an easy-to-use connectivity solution that provides extensible local telephony with the possibility of upstream voice and/or data connectivity via POTS, mobile, or other IP services.
In a perfect world, this would be an out-of-the-box solution which provides an Asterisk PABX/telco along with a number of preprogrammed handsets which would offer instant local phone calls and voicemail to anyone within the radius of a WiFi antenna. This is not a Wireless ISP in a Box (WISP) with the possibility of some VOIP services overlayed on it. This is a local telephony solution with the possibility of upstream network connectivity for both voice and data. I make this distinction because voice is still the killer app i.e. delivers the most general utility and I think you need to deliver this service before all others.
What I am imagining is something like the Fon initiative but targeted at providing low-cost local voice services in Africa. Data is cool too but voice is the minimum entry point. Instead of buying a Fon wireless router, you as a local entrepreneur would buy a small Asterisk PABX that comes with a dozen or two pre-programmed phones. The whole thing should work out of the box with people simply needing to associate themselves with a phone extension. Voila! instant local phone calls and voicemail. Part of my theory of change is that a local phone service on its own would provide enough utility to warrant the investment. In December, I was at the Global Knowledge 3 conference in Malaysia where Ross O’Brian of the Economist Intelligence Unit mentioned statistics from Afghanistan that the majority of phone calls were local to the community they were initiated from. That started me wondering what percentage of phone calls are local in Africa, in urban, peri-urban, and rural areas. If anyone has any evidence one way or the other I would love to hear about it.
Having said that, delivery of local voice and voicemail is just the tip of the iceberg. Ideally, a “village telco” device would easily connect to a regular phone line, mobile service, or Internet connection to offer upstream voice and/or interconnectivity. It would also offer a simple billing system that could be adapted to a variety of billing models based on pay-as-you-go, monthly accounts, or even barter.
This is NOT the Nokia-Siemens Village Connection
While I applaud the ingenuity that has gone into designing the Village Connection and the spirit of entrepreneurship that it hopes to engender, it seems to me that Nokia-Siemens’ decision to distribute the Village Connection through the mobile operator supply chain means that the Village Connection is only going to help entrench market control for mobile operators.
A “village telco” by contrast would allow villages/communities/organisations to choose their own interconnections and upstream providers, to use VOIP where it is most cost-effective and mobile/POTS services. It would also allow “village telcos” to interconnect among themselves.
It is not just in the realm of consumer choice that a “village telco” would be different in a very important way from the Village Connection. Based on a shared, transparent Open Source/Open Hardware model, the “village telco” would allow widespread entrepreneurship and grassroots innovation. Necessarily, a “village telco” would need to easily evolve to adapt to local realities. The Open Source model for the “village telco” creates a trusted open space for innovation to be fed back into the design.
This is not to say that that the “village telco” idea is not commerce-friendly. There are plenty of opportunities to provide upstream services to a “village telco”, to interconnect, to offer value-added services, etc.
Coexistence with Mobile Operators
Because a “village telco” would offer non-mobile (or at least limited to local WiFi coverage) services, it should be able to co-exist with mobile providers. There would still be a natural aspiration path to having a personal mobile phone that offers more flexibility (and perhaps status). Once connected to a mobile operator, every customer of the “village telco” has the potential to generate revenue for the mobile operator by dialing phone on their network.
But Why Stop at Voice and Data?
Pundits have been touting financial transactions as the next big thing for mobile markets and indeed the early success of initiatives such as mPesa appear validate these predictions. A plausible next step for a “village telco” would be to support a transaction system that could serve as a financial/barter proxy for a village/community. It open the possibility of providing local solutions to local economies. But perhaps I am getting ahead of myself.