This is a diagram for Bushmail, a system which allows users in very remote locations to send email using high-frequency radio signals. No need for a mobile signal, no need for cell towers and no need for any infrastructure.
A wire strung up over a tree is enough to act as a transmitter/receiver, and a car battery and a solar panel enough to power the whole thing. Used quite widely among the conservation community, could this be the ideal data/email solution for an ‘off-network’ African village?
This is a Motorola walkie-talkie. With a range of approximately ten square kilometres, these radios allow two-way voice communication without the need for a mobile signal, no need for cell towers and no need for any additional infrastructure. An ideal voice solution for communication within and around a remote African village?
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about intermediate technology, the ‘other’ name for appropriate technology but one which, going by my thinking, promises more of a bridge to an “optimum technology solution” rather than one trying to be an out-and-out replacement for it. A stop-gap, in other words. I’ve also been thinking about how people communicate within rural communities. When we talk about connectivity, who are we trying to connect people to? In my latest PC World article – “Where walkie-talkies dare” – I ask:
Imagine, say, 75% of a rural community’s communication needs were local, in other words among itself, and most of that community lived in, say, a 10- or 15-square-kilometre area. You could argue that a for-profit mobile network, likely run by a diesel-powered tower, is an inappropriate and over-the-top technology solution. Other technologies already exist that could do the job, technologies that don’t operate on a pay-per-use basis and don’t need costly infrastructure to work
If you want two great examples of these kinds of technologies, just look up.
Despite the spectacular advance of mobile, large swathes of some of the more remote communities in the developing world still remain disconnected – not just from us, but also from each other. While mobile technology is widely regarded by many as the ultimate solution, many communities stand little chance of getting on the radar of the “mobile for development” community until they firstly get on the radar of the mobile operators, and a tower appears somewhere in or near their village. Although exciting things happen when towers appear, I’d argue that waiting years for one to come is probably unnecessary. Turning again to my PC World article:
Right now, a traders cooperative in a rural village could easily equip itself with walkie-talkies and exchange information on commodity prices and produce availability, to organise transport and to share storm forecasts. Health care workers covering the village and nearby area could use them to communicate and technically coordinate a health care network. And why not have Village Phone Operators (VPOs) with walkie-talkies rather than mobile phones, who can sell the use of their devices for a small fee, with a near 100% profit margin? Maybe this is a new model Grameen Phone could do something with?
I’d be fascinated to hear if anyone has carried out research on the local communication needs of rural communities. How much of what they need to say is predominantly local? If my ‘grab-it-out-of-the-air’ figure of 75% is even remotely close – and we put any technology snobbery aside for a moment – then I think there could be very real opportunities to implement some very effective intermediate technology solutions within some of these communities.
So, my questions are these: Are there projects out there implementing these solutions right now? Are they working? What other (better?) options are available? What do the communities think of them? Maybe this is all just a crazy idea? I’d love to hear your thoughts.