Bringing mobile phone access to the world’s most remote communities is a two-fold challenge. These areas lack basic infrastructure and developing it is costly. Major telecoms are reticent to invest in these communities because the low number of customers means they are unlikely to make a profit. Range Networks, a company based in San Francisco, uses open source software and off-the-shelf hardware to create some innovative technologies that brings mobile service to ‘last-mile’ communities in the Global South.
The system, designed by graduate students from the University of California, Berkeley, creates individual network boxes that connect via satellite and can be installed virtually anywhere, even at the top of a tree. As the project expands, the company hopes to use the little-used “white space” in the unlicensed spectrum to connect mobile devices of every kind, eventually providing internet connections outside of the expensive and competitive bands used by major telecoms.
A network box installed at the top of a tree in a remote village in Papau, Indonesia, has removed the need to travel four hours to the nearest reliable cell network. It has created a booming local mobile economy and serves as a poster-project for Range’s work. While most noted for projects serving the world’s isolated rural communities, the system has even been used to bring inexpensive mobile access to researchers working in Antarctica.
Mobile network access may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about poverty reduction and global development, but studies have shown that accessible mobile technology has huge benefits in education, governance, health, and even agriculture (see a great Huffington Post article here. For a discussion on technology justice, see this post by Practical Action). The idea behind the system draws parallels to recent rumours that Google and Facebook are looking into viable ways of providing remote internet access across the African continent. Google has announced plans, dubbed Project Loon, to develop solar-powered balloons to help connect remote ares. There is further speculation that Facebook is planning a similar project using high-altitude drones capable of staying up for five years at a time. The drones are still mostly rumour, but Project Loon has shown some success. We’ll keep you posted with developments as they’re released.
Range Networks has been receiving a lot of great press about this project lately, including this article from Ars Technica, which discusses the technical side in more detail, and this article by the MIT Technical Review, which looks more closely at the company’s operations. You can find out more about Range’s other fascinating projects through their website.
While it remains to be seen how major telecommunications companies will react to the system, it seems like Range has finally found a solution to bring network access to the world’s billion under-connected people. Oddly, the system provides users with Swedish telephone numbers. Just imagine how surreal wrong-number calls will be.