Startup sets out to bring Cellular Access to the Last Billion

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The Berkeley-based startup Endaga has an admirable mission in mind. There are an extensive number of rural communities around the world that are still lacking the telecom infrastructure for making cellular phone calls, and it is unlikely that any corporate tigers will provide these people with the possibility anytime soon. This is where the company’s big idea comes in.

Sometimes it is hard to grasp the differences that still exist among the inhabitants of this planet. The disadvantage where it comes to purchasing power for the less fortunate stretches from lack of medicine and nutritious foods, to the ability to organize efficient communities, establishing trade infrastructure and form prospering markets.

The ability to communicate via mobile phones has already created a huge impact in several African countries. A plethora of usage areas for mobile money transfer via SMS has for instance made Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda the fastest growing mobile payments markets in the world, and created an array of new business opportunities (see e.g. SSI Review). With current developments, Frost & Sullivan predicts that Sub-Saharan Africa (which has the lowest mobile phone penetration rate on the continent) will reach 80% within five years, according to CPAfrica.

However, this prediction is not only based on the presumption that mobile operators will increase access by coverage, but also that the people will decide that a mobile phone is a sound investment. So, there will still be rural areas that are excluded – both in the African examples but also to a great extent in Asia for instance. Even if people would want or could afford a phone, they could not make a call.

This is where Endaga’s solution comes in. Their invention is called CCN1 and is a satellite telecommunications-in-a-box which can be attached to a tall pole or even a tree and will provide enough cell signal to serve an entire small town. As Springwise writes, the company is distributing its solution to communities living in the remotest corners of the world where telecoms aren’t likely to extend the grid any time soon. Endaga believe that a new local ownership model, alongside CCN1, can help them to bring cellular access to the next billion potential customers.

This way, the startup gives rural entrepreneurs the tech to operate their own mobile networks, and the whole thing can run on solar power. All villagers need now are the phones, which aren’t terribly hard to come by even in poorer regions in Asia, as “even the least fortunate families seem to be able to get their hands on a Blackberry these days”, in the words of Tech in Asia. The whole idea, and the reason behind it, becomes summed up by the CEO Kurtis Heimerl (which recently made MIT Technology Reviews 2014 list of top “35 Innovators Under 35”), as he tells the webpage’s reporter:

“Telecom is built off of the idea that only nation-scale firms can operate this kind of equipment. Allowing individuals to do it changes the dynamic entirely and is extremely disruptive to existing business models.”

According to FierceWireless Tech, Endaga already has one pilot project with a primary school in Papua, Indonesia (a four-hour drive from cellular coverage). The company is also targeting remote areas in Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Philippines. The idea is to have people in the communities running the networks rather than outside companies coming in to do it. As Edaga’s CEO tells FierceWirelessTech, Indonesia alone represents a big opportunity, as its cellular penetration rate is just about 60 percent, according to the GSMA.

Let us wish the company the best of luck on its admirable mission and that at least some parts of the unconnected billion can benefit greatly from the venture’s struggle. It is truly a great initiative fighting in the same direction as Google’s Loon project and Facebook’s Internet.org, but maybe at an even more fundamental level, since cell phone connection most often precedes internet connection in global development.

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