"This is an initiative to assemble/develop the cheapest, easiest to setup, easiest to manage, scalable, Open Source, standards-based, wireless local do-it-yourself telephone company toolkit in the world. The goal of the project is to render local telephony in developing countries to be so cheap as to be virtually free. Thanks to advances in Open Source telephony software and the dramatic decrease in the cost of wireless broadband technology, we think this is entirely possible.
The project consists of three principle elements
1. Simplified Billing System for Selling Pay-as-you-go Voice Services
This element will make a contribution to the excellent A2Billing Open Source project. Work on this project will result in a guided installation wizard for people with limited technical skills and a simple administration and billing interface for business managers.
2. Mesh Potato – A low-cost wireless mesh device you can plug a regular phone into
This is described in the Mesh Potato project page. In a nutshell, the Village Telco needs an affordable device to connect customers to the meshed WiFi network. The Mesh Potato will dramatically reduce the cost of a Village Telco startup
3. Easy-to-use GIS-based Mesh Management Interface
We are partnering with the CSIR-supported Afrimesh project which is developing a fast, easy-to-use, low-overhead management dashboard which enables mesh network operators to create and sustain a resilient communications network with a minimum of fuss." (http://www.villagetelco.org/villagetelco/about/)
Stephen Song is the founder of Village Telco, a social enterprise that aims to make starting a telephone company as easy as starting a blog.
Roshan Paul and Alexa Clay: How did the low-cost phone and Internet device Mesh Potato—the flagship project of Village Telco—come about?
Stephen Song: I had been doing advocacy for a while on the issue of the cost of access to communication in Africa. The biggest barrier is the lack of competition. Most countries have very few telecommunications operators, and they tend to operate with a fairly cozy relationship. Prices remain high. However, people with lower income levels in Africa spend as much as 50 percent of their disposable income on telecommunications—so there is a clear market for communication, and a huge need to make it cheaper and better.
On the other hand, I was aware that there were small chunks of the spectrum that were freely available for use; what is popularly known as Wi-Fi spectrum. You now find Wi-Fi devices in virtually everything—somebody told me the other day that they bought a bathroom scale with Wi-Fi. Moreover, all over the world, people are building meshed Wi-Fi networks to build their own Internet infrastructure. In Africa, however, you get much higher value if you can deliver voice and Internet services, instead of just internet.
All of these trends and forces taken together made us realize that that you can use inexpensive Wi-Fi gear to build rural telephone networks. That was what led to Mesh Potato.
Why did you choose to use open source for this idea? Why not set up your own cozy, lucrative partnership with one firm, and capture the market?
What open source allows for is a fast-track toward trust. We approached a manufacturer with the design and said we would give it to them for free, on the understanding that they gave away the design for free—no patents—but that they could use it wherever and however they wanted. So there were no tricks. Everything was on the table: They got a free product, we got a deal to build the system, and we very quickly had a working relationship built on trust.
People like to contribute their ideas and energy if they know someone else isn’t going to profit from it. We benefit from an international network of over 500 people from all around the world, who help and contribute in different ways: developing the software, de-bugging it, spreading the word, testing, etc. Besides, nobody likes the big, incumbent communication companies—so we also benefited by being the little guy up against the Goliaths.
How did you turn your community into co-creators, an essential element of any open source approach?
First, when they join the community, they become the front-line for each other in terms of solving problems—how to deploy, troubleshoot, etc. The community helps to solve the problem, so they are in fact part of the technical support team. Second, they help with developing new market directions. For instance, one person wanted the technology to focus more on small businesses. So he customized the product accordingly and then shared it back with the community. Now, 30 percent of the community is actually using his product rather than the original. Thus, the community drives the technology’s growth strategically; they shape the choices we make in terms of enhancing the technology.
How much progress have you made? And what’s next?
We have sold 1,000 units so far in developing countries around the world. But we haven’t yet hit the price point we want. We’re now working on the second generation of the Mesh Potato.
We started out launching the Mesh Potato for everyone because it has so many different applications—from disaster relief to a community-wide telephone to a cyber café that wants to extend services for local businesses. So we’re presently doing further market definitions and then tailoring the technology for those markets." (http://www.ssireview.org/opinion/entry/scaling_social_impact_by_giving_away_value/)