VIllage Telco's Mesh Potato, which retails for $119 and provides both data and voice services via wifi to communities with limited internet and mobile phone access.
The statistics, by now, are familiar to those of us following technology in the developing world. A recent article in The Economist looks at Africa's booming economy, identifying mobile phones as one of the major drivers behind the continent's growth: "Mobile phones have penetrated deep into the bush. More than 600m Africans have one; perhaps 10% of those have access to mobile-internet services. The phones make boons like savings accounts and information on crop prices ever more available."
But as a continent of over a billion people, that means some 400 million—twice the population of Brazil—still do not have access to mobile communications. And even fewer have access to the Internet. Those who do have access to a phone spend more than half of their disposable income just to stay connected. At the same time, building a tower to cover many parts of Africa can be a challenge, both because of the costs of the tower and the lack of access to available radio bandwidth.
In comes Village Telco, an organization working on technology to leap past these challenges and offer a low cost communications option for Africans in rural areas. "It caught me by surprise," founder Steve Song told Core77, as he referred to the "incredible pace and change of mobile technology."
An early prototype of the Mesh Potato. Image courtesy the Shuttleworth Foundation on a Creative Commons License.
Recognizing the growing need for voice and data services for all citizens across the continent, Song, based in Cape Town, set out to find a solution to the challenges of accessible connectivity. He had been following wireless hacker movement who had discovered that Linksys routers were built on open-source software and that a wave guide antenna could be built using a soup can—"a cantenna," he told me—that would distribute a broadband signal several kilometers away.
Based on this technology, Village Telco developed the "Mesh Potato," a wi-fi router adapted to connect with other devices like it and distribute wi-fi over large areas at low cost. It's the same basic principle that allows an Apple Airport Express to extend a wi-fi signal around your home. When deployed in a place like Bo-kaap, South Africa, a community on a hill, four of these devices serve as a backbone network, while dozens more placed on individual rooftops extend the network.
A map shows the backbone and network structure of the Mesh Potatoes deployed in Do-Kaap, South Africa.
The "killer app," as Song describes it, is that these potatoes connect not only with laptops and smartphones, but with analog phones. "The plain old ordinary telephone is one of the most elegant pieces of technology ever designed," he noted. Indeed, the mesh potatoes are designed for simple plug and play, allowing anyone to plug in an analog telephone and make a call to anyone else on the network—at no extra cost.
Having developed a first-generation wi-fi device in the Mesh Potato, Village Telco is now developing a less expensive yet more powerful version to put it within the reach of the poorest communities. The goal is to build on their initial success and create technology that can develop instant network setups, making it easier for anyone to purchase a kit and install a network. These setups can serve as a source of livelihood for enterprising villagers, such as those setting up a local cyber cafe or telephone hub for their community. Ultimately, mesh potatoes can make communications technology more affordable to 400 million Africans without a phone, and help free up disposable income for those who do have a phone
"Mobile technologies have become so defining of how people interact and how people do business," Song told me, underlining the importance of finding scalable, accessible ways to offer low cost voice and data to all corners of Africa. "It's a different world."