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Bad cellphone reception? No Internet? Here’s how to build a better connection yourself

Sick of waiting around until the telecoms bring you cellphone reception and a solid Internet connection? Techies believes there’s no need to wait around anymore. With cheap new technology and smart policy hacks, they’re helping remote towns build their own communications networks.

One year ago, Talea de Castro, a small mountain town with around 3000 inhabitants, was just like tens of thousands of other Mexican villages. No cellphone reception, and no telecom company interested in changing that.  

Villagers paid steep prices to make calls at local shops that owned the scarce and expensive landlines. When they called loved ones in the US, conversations were kept short: at 1,25$ per minute, such a call could swallow up a big part of their income. Grandmothers with bad knees who needed to deliver a message had no choice but to hike the town’s steep streets.

Talea de Castro had lobbied the telecom giants for change for years, but to no avail. The town was too small and remote to make it profitable to build the required expensive phone towers. Waiting for Carlos Slim was like waiting for Godot.

So when Peter Bloom, a community organizer with Rhizomatica, proposed a crazy plan to help the Taleans build their own community-owned cellphone network, the villagers decided to give it a shot. “At the beginning, we had no idea if it was going to work or not,” Bloom admits. “The tech was very new. So I asked them: are you willing to experiment with us?”

The experiment paid off. Only a few months later, Mexican villages are lining up to become the next Talea de Castro. For only 2 cents a minute, the villagers now call family abroad. At 5 cents a minute, their calls are connected to other Mexican phones. Calls and texts to other users of the community network are completely free.

It has made life in the village a little bit easier in many different ways. Villagers can now order food from a local restaurant. Community radio listeners call in to the studio to give their opinions. Farmers feel safer, knowing they can call for help if they get hurt in the fields. Staying in touch with family abroad is no longer a luxury.

A crazy proposal
Bloom believes that the cheap new technology is “the revolutionary aspect” behind the network. The network is built with a recently developed 5000$ base station that provides reception for a few miles around town and routes remote calls via an Internet connection. Originally lent to the town by the company that built it, the town bought the equipment after it became convinced by its success.

Yet another key aspect was a policy hack, not a technological hack. If you want to set up a cellphone network, you don’t just need equipment that can send and receive calls over airwaves. You also need the government permits to use those airwaves—and these so-called spectrum licenses are all owned by the same telecoms that are reluctant to build out networks to remote villages.

Except, Bloom found, for a small sliver of spectrum that had been left unsold by Mexican government regulators. Rhizomatica approached the regulators and asked for a concession on those airwave frequencies to build non-profit community networks. For free, because as Bloom explains, “We didn’t want to fight to go to auction against the richest man in the world,” referring to Carlos Slim. To everyone’s surprise, the regulator consented.

Rhizomatica now holds a two-year spectrum concession. “Our idea and hope is that once we prove this works, we will try to get a real concession,” Bloom adds. He laughs, “Everybody thinks we’re insane, but everybody thought we were crazy in the first place,” asking for a free temporary license.

Another wavelength
In other parts of the world, techies are avoiding the problem of spectrum licenses altogether by building DYI networks on WiFi. In most countries, WiFi is left unlicensed so that people can set up small wireless networks in cafés or office networks. Since WiFi signals peter out after a few meters, the big telecoms don’t see the WiFi frequency as a commercial threat. 

But with the help of hacked equipment, such as cheap, homemade “cantennae” – antennae built from cans –and altered routers, WiFi signals can be concentrated and extended to a few kilometers. That means an entire village can connect over WiFi if they own smartphones or computers. And by creating a daisy chain of WiFi devices, such a network can also gain access to Internet connections up to 50 kilometers away.

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That’s exactly what Nicolas Echaniz did, a programmer from Quintana Libre, a town of a few hundred people in the center of Argentina. When he moved there with his girlfriend a few years ago, “It was completely disconnected from the Internet,” Echaniz describes. “Even cellphone reception was weak. I had to throw my cellphone in the air to send an SMS.”

But Echaniz, a practical idealist who lived in eco-villages for 15 years, saw a chance to build a type of Internet co-op: he built links out to the nearest Internet uplink, and bought a single connection strong enough to support 70 families. The users share the modest costs.

In Argentina, where a government plan provided laptops to every child in public school, devices with WiFi capability are common. In Quintana, children received almost 300 computers, which made investing a small sum in an Internet connection attractive to poorer families too.  Given the town’s bad cellphone reception, villagers also call each other via VoIP-services which are free over the local network.

Since the success in Quintana, Echaniz and many others have worked together under the moniker of Altermundi, to teach small communities across Argentina to build up their community networks.

Bloom is expanding too, he states: “We have a long list of villages that are interested in getting on board.” He has already wired up a few new villages in the months since Talea’s success.

But he also urges those currently unconnected to take matters into their own hands: “Just go and do it. Most places on earth are not going to be covered because of big companies, but because people will take these tools that are now accessible and pretty inexpensive and get access themselves. There’s nothing holding us back.”

This article was published in Spanish at RNW's Latin-American site.

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This article is part of the RNW archive. RNW is the former Radio Netherlands Worldwide or Wereldomroep, which was founded as the Dutch international public broadcaster in 1947. In 2011 Dutch government’s decided to cut funding and shift RNW in 2013 from the ministry of Education, Culture and Science to the ministry of Foreign Affairs. More information about RNW’s current activities can be found at http://www.rnw.org/about-rnw