What is the Village Telco?
The Village Telco is an initiative to assemble and/or develop the cheapest, easiest-to-setup, easiest-to-manage, scalable, standards-based, wireless local do-it-yourself telephone company toolkit in the world. We believe this is achievable through the use of Open Source software and low-cost, off-the-shelf, consumer communication technologies. A Village Telco offers affordable voice (and data) services through the provision of WiFi infrastructure and phones.
What makes the Village Telco different from other rural, low-cost WiFi projects, is it’s focus on voices services, both from the point of view of making them work as effectively as possible at as low a cost as possible but also from the point of view of creating a sustainable business model for entrepreneurs.
What is Dabba?
Dabba is an entrepreneurial start-up based in Johannesburg offering low-cost voice services over WiFi networks. Dabba provides voice services in Orange Farm, a township south of Johannesburg but is in the process of expanding services to other townships around Johannesburg and ultimately across the country. Dabba uses Open Source software and low-cost WiFi infrastructure.
What is the relationship of Dabba to the Village Telco?
As the Village Telco concept was being developed, Dabba was already pragmatically applying similar ideas as a innovative start-up in Orange Farm. A collaboration evolved between the Shuttleworth Foundation and Dabba, where the Foundation committed to helping develop, document, and popularise in the form of the Village Telco, the technologies in use by Dabba. This gave the Foundation the opportunity to invest in Open Source communication tools that could immediately be practically applied by companies like Dabba.
Why does the world need Village Telcos?
Communications infrastructure is evolving from being a convenient tool of the comparatively wealthy to an essential ingredient in economic growth for rich and poor alike. While around the world, telecommunications infrastructure is steadily becoming less expensive and more ubiquitous, access to telecommunications is least available and most expensive for the poor in developing countries.
The reason for this is two-fold. On the one hand, telecommunications operators in developing countries have focused their investment on markets that will provided a high rate of return. Poor communities are low down on the list for the deployment of infrastructure. Equally, developing countries telecommunications markets are characterised by a lack of effective competition resulting in high communications costs. These means that even when the poor are technologically included, they are often still economically excluded from making full effective use of telecommunications access.
Tradition telecommunications operators are based on a “connect-out” model. Infrastructure is deployed according to a centralised roll-out plan and as a consequence access arrives for communities at the discretion of the operator. By contrast, the Internet developed on a “connect-in” model. Around the world, if you had resources and expertise, you could build a “bridge” to the Internet. The open, standards-based, connect-in nature of the Internet resulted in substantially faster growth of Internet infrastructure than traditional telecommunications infrastructure. The Village Telco is an attempt to bring an Internet, connect-in approach to the deployment of telecommunications infrastructure. Any entrepreneur with modest resources and technical ability should be able to deploy a Village Telco.
We hope that the Village Telco will also enable user innovation. Around the world, mobile users have pioneered new, unintended uses for their phones. From “beeping” to credit-transfer, poor communities, given the opportunity, will adapt technologies to better serve their needs. The Village Telco is intended to open up opportunities for local innovation by building in openness and flexibility of use.
How does a Village Telco actually work?
The Village Telco consists of three basic components, a billing and user management system, a wireless mesh network and affordable handsets for users. A fourth component is upstream telecommunications connectivity for the Village Telco although it is conceivable that a Village Telco could provide sufficient value by just offering local voice services in areas where upstream connectivity is either unavailable or unaffordable.
What is an “upstream” Village Telco
Many Village Telcos are likely to find it challenging to go through the process of interconnecting with a combination of upstream Internet and mobile operators. This opens the door for the more advanced implementers of Village Telcos to offer upstream connecting services to smaller, newer, or less technically advanced Village Telcos in a given region. In South Africa, Dabba is a likely such “upstream” telco that could offer interconnection services to Village Telco startups in the region.
Is this intended as a short-term solution until mobile coverage arrives?
While the Village Telco is a technology that would work very well in bringing telecommunications access where there is none, it is not just intended for areas without access. It is also intended to bring competitive pricing to areas where there is access but it is still comparatively expensive for the poor. It is not intended to replace mobile infrastructure.
By offering the potential for free or very-low-cost local calls for communities, we think it can offer a useful and attractive complementary service to mobile communication. While it is possible for a Village Telco user to “roam” within the WiFi mesh coverage, the model of the Village Telco is more as a home or business phone provider.
What services does a Village Telco offer?
The focus on voice services is quite deliberate. While the poor in developing countries ultimately need access to both voice and data (Internet) services, we believe that affordable voice is what is needed first. Having said that, the Village Telco is based on Internet technology which is equally capable of providing data access. This capability can evolve as demand for information services increases.
There is also the possibility for innovation in other kinds of services. Because the Village Telco can offer pay-as-you-go billing for voice and data services, there is the opportunity for innovation in financial transactions. Just as has happened in the mobile world, phone or data credits could emerge as local currency for currently un-monetized transactions. Currently this is just speculation though.
Who is likely to invest in a Village Telco?
The most likely candidate to invest in a Village Telco is a local businessman / entrepreneur. In some that persons might already be offering some sort of ICT access such a cyber cafe or telecentre but this is not essential
Do you need specialist knowledge?
Decreasing the amount of specialist knowledge required for deploying this kind of technology is one of the core aims of the Village Telco. Right now the technology exists to roll out WiFi-based voice infrastructure but the level of expertise required limits this idea to a tiny number of technical “gurus”. Our goal is to make the Village Telco no harder to establish than a typical cyber cafe.
Who would have access to the services?
A typical Village Telco might begin by targeting services to local businesses and service institutions such as schools where demand for affordable communication is likely to be high. Ultimately however, the Village Telco is intended to offer individual access for home users
Are Village Telcos legal?
This is dependent on the local regulatory environment for telecommunications. In some developing countries, access to WiFi spectrum is still restricted and a Village Telco would either need a spectrum license or exemption from such a license. In some countries, WiFi innovators have had success by flying under the radar of regulation but it is hard to imagine Village Telcos going to scale without a regulatory framework that allows interconnection with other telecommunications networks.