The dream of creating micro-low cost voice operators for under-serviced urban and rural areas looks set to become a reality.
The South African company Dabba with support from Internet Solutions is creating a business model that will allow micro-operators to function. Open software and hardware development support is coming from Shuttleworth Foundation.
Russell Southwood talked to the Foundation’s Steve Song about developments.
The idea developing the idea of the micro low-cost telco in South Africa came out of a workshop run by the Shuttleworth Foundation attended by among others Rael Lissos, CEO of Dabba; Elektra Freifunk, BATMAN, the author of the mesh networking protocol of the same name; David Rowe of the Free Telephony Project and open hardware pioneer; Jeff Fletcher, Internet Solutions; and Jeff Wishnie, CTO, Inveneo.
According to Steve Song: “The intent of the workshop was to bring together the right people to be able to prototype a Village Telco, with the intention of getting some configurations and code up on to the website so that interested parties would have something to hack on…We never did build a prototype but we did something better, we brainstormed a new, low-cost start-up model for a Village Telco”.
The workshop differed from previous low-cost attempts in two ways. Firstly, previous geek enthusiasts have been keen on cheap Wi-Fi to deliver Internet. This group came together to create a technology and a model that would deliver voice and fit into the telco world. Secondly, it was working on the assumption that whatever technology was created that it needed to be able to be assembled “out-of-the-box” and be durable away from the caring hands of maintenance staff.
The ideas have been taken up by Dabba run by South African entrepreneur, Steve Lissos who has previously successfully developed education content for the Open University. It has a VANS licence and is already operating in Orange Farm, 45 minutes south of Johannesburg. Song says that it’s still prototype technology but the aim is to achieve the simplicity of an “out-of-of-the-box” offer: “There’s a lot of energy among the participants.”
Dabba has partners who want to expand into Alexandria and Soweto in the greater Johannesburg area and Khayelitsha in Cape Town. Emerging markets low-cost voice provider Inveneo is also interested in participating for the markets it operates in.
Dabba is already interconnecting with South Africa’s four main voice carriers but reactions are mixed. One of the larger mobile carriers has been very helpful, whilst a couple have been blocking calls. It has had support from IS who are one of the 20 VANS currently queuing to get infrastructure licences.
Dabba’s plan is to become an intermediary for the much smaller micro telcos, allowing them to aggregate traffic before entering the telco world and providing much needed support. It will also enable the micro telcos to offer cheap calling to other micro telcos that work with Dabba. The business is focused on working financially with 1,000 subscribers.
And the technology to run this? According to Song: “…we came to our 5000 dollar recipe for a Village Telco startup. USD 5000 should get you a server and printer (for pay-as-you-go coupons) running Asterisk and A2billing (modified into simple management framework), an Ubiquiti Nanostation-based Super Node and about 40 Mesh Potatoes (a ruggedised ATA and Mesh AP).”
The user would get a cheap VoIP handset from someone like UT Starcom. The SuperNode will deliver a coverage area of 2 kilometres but the phone’s range is only 100 metres. The alternatives are that there would have to be a greater density of wireless access points or as with the precursors to mobile phones, the access points might be physically marked and people could stand near them. The former would make sense for a large village, latter might work in a smaller settlement.
For the mobile operator, it allows others to take the financial and control risks in areas of marginal business. And if it succeeds, it may offer valuable lessons in how to strip back the CAPEX to meet market demand in increasingly marginal areas. This will not prevent the more pig-headed mobile companies from trying to strangle it at birth.
It offers local entrepreneurs the opportunity to build a business. For the unspent millions in Universal Service Funds all over Africa it offers a new market-driven element that could energise the drive to reach the last 30-50% of Africans who do not yet currently have access to voice or Internet.