Many people in the world can’t pick up a telephone and make a phone call. This needs to be fixed. Open hardware and software are the key.
Imagine an IP08 low power IP-PBX connected to a WRT54 type router, with an antenna, 5-10W solar panel, and a backup battery. The IP08 connects to 8 analog telephones, just like the photos in this post showing the IP04 deployment at Fantsuam. The wireless side meshes with similar nodes to generate a community telco network. Gateways distributed around the network connect the calls to PSTN and GSM networks. Business models built around the network to fund hardware, provide income, and promote viral growth of the Village Telco network.
Several people are planning such networks, the best description so far has been from Steve Song on his Village Telco blog post. There has also been a great ongoing discussion on the Wireless Africa group. There is even a role model – Rael Lissoos who is building a VOIP over Wifi business called Dabba in Orange Farm, a township about an hour south of Johannesburg. Steve has written a great introduction to Dabba on his blog.
Some novel features of the Village Telco concept are:
- Community owned and operated.
- Much lower capital and running costs than GSM or traditional fixed networks.
- One of the biggest problems (electricity) can be solved by the low power consumption of the IP04 (3W plus a few watts for the router).
- Inter operate with and extend existing GSM/PSTN networks, enhancing communications and providing revenue for incumbent telcos.
- Low R&D costs by leveraging commodity hardware, open hardware, and open software.
- Voice first: Voice is the killer app, especially where literacy levels are low. However a nice side effect of the Village Telco network is an IP backbone.
There are some other novel possibilities. The Free Telephony Project has shown that it is possible to build and put into volume production sophisticated hardware products using community development models. Rather than relying on existing commodity hardware we could develop and build our own custom “products”, for example an IP-phone or ATA with integrated long distance Wifi that includes enough flash/RAM to run sophisticated mesh routing software. We can choose to design open hardware products to run our open software.
Personally, I like the idea of mixing “old school” analog and VOIP technology. For example I think the humble analog telephone has several advantages over a SIP phone. It is cheap ($2 in some developing countries), and requires no local power supply (power comes down the line). It is reliable, readily available, and requires no configuration. So I see some merit in say IP08 type-devices distributing multiple analog lines throughout a community, rather than SIP or Wifi handsets for every user.
Other possibilities are a desktop SIP phone that has integrated Wifi, or a “wireless ATA” – a small box with a Wifi Antenna and a FXS port to plug an analog phone into.
I am very keen to help develop the Village Telco concept in 2008, as part of a team including people like Alberto and Louise from IT 46, Steve Song, the people on the Wireless Africa group, the Meraka Institute and the IDRC .
Here are some of my plans:
- Connect to the Air-stream community Wifi mesh network in my home town and get some experience in VOIP over community mesh Wifi networks.
- Explore ways of making Village Telco nodes “plug and play”. Currently you need to be an embedded Linux/Asterisk/Wireless guru to install an IP04 WRT54 type node. What we need is a system that will find the Wifi net, mesh with it, and allocate phone numbers automatically. End users should get “dial tone out of the box”. The end user should be able to apply power and start making phone calls.
- Explore business models. This is essential for viral growth. The guy in the village must be able to make a living out of the Village Telco. What is the best business model to do this? What software (e.g. billing systems, calling card software, remote maintenance, GUIs) do we need to add to the system to make this happen?
- Explore Open Hardware solutions: For example prototyping a low costs Wifi ATA (imagine an open hardware Meraki with a FXS port), and working out how to integrate with GSM.
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