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Tech Infrastructure In The Developing World

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Before Endaga’s cell network in a box arrived in Shimshal, Pakistan, villagers had to drive three hours along the Shimshal Valley Road — one of the most dangerous roads in the world — to reach the nearest town with a telephone. When people were injured, it took hours for the nearest doctor to arrive because someone had to drive to the nearest town with a phone to call for a doctor.

Without phones, villagers in Shimshal (and the thousands of villages like it) are isolated from their neighbors a few miles down the road and their relatives in other towns, and are cut off from anything that does not occur in their village.

More than a billion people do not have access to cellular networks, three billion people live without phones and five billion people do without Internet access. While billions became connected to phone and Internet networks over the past decade, huge numbers of people are still underserved by these networks. The existing telecom and Internet infrastructure faces a tremendous challenge in linking many of these unconnected and under-connected people with the rest of the world.

Large numbers of the unconnected live in poor parts of the world, where engineers are a rarity and mountains, ravines and unreliable electricity make it difficult or unprofitable for the major providers to set up and maintain phone and Internet networks. The infrastructure behind phone networks and the Internet must be re-imagined as rugged, less expensive and more flexible to work in the developing world. Labs like UC Berkeley’s Technology and Infrastructure for Emerging Regions (TIER) and startups like Endaga, which was acquired by Facebook in October, BRCK, EveryLayer, Range Networks and Kili are working on that challenge.

Berkeley’s TIER is leading the charge to create infrastructure tech designed with an awareness of the needs and challenges of the developing world. Researchers at TIER have lived in Uganda, Pakistan and Indonesia, where they designed and tested solutions to ensure that users can afford and understand what TIER has developed.

In addition to making sure semi-literate people earning around $100 a month who have little prior contact with tech can afford and use what TIER built, the researchers have to be attuned to challenges around deployment and operation. They make sure that hydro, solar, generator or grid power can be used to power their solutions, which lets villagers use whatever is available to them.

TIER’s work on healthcare, wireless connectivity and cellular access has already spawned three startups — Endaga, Tarana Wireless and Captricity. The group is currently still working on cellular access and is also working on rural electrification and analytics for the developing world.

More than a billion people do not have access to cellular networks, three billion people live without phones and five billion people do without Internet access.

To create a cell network with the power to bring phone networks to the unconnected billions, the Endaga team re-designed the base station, the link in a telecom network that connects phones with the broader network. Base stations usually cost around $250,000 and require extensive support, but Endaga has developed an alternative, the CCN1, which costs $6,000. Instead of needing to build a cell tower, bring in a generator and set-up a complex to support and protect a station, local entrepreneurs who purchase the CCN1 are able to mount it high on a roof or a tree and use whatever power is available to get the network up and running.

Range Networks is also working on the challenge of creating cellular networks in underdeveloped areas. Range has developed OpenBTS, software that replaces the traditional base station network and brings it online through Wi-Fi, VSAT or BGAN, different types of Internet networks. By unbundling the software needed to create and operate a cellular network from the expensive hardware needed for a traditional cell network, and by relying on Internet protocols to support the network, Range offers a low-cost alternative to create cell networks in villages and rural areas.

While U.S.-based startups are working on infratech for the developing world, Nairobi’s startup scene has had recent success with homegrown solutions. BRCK, a connectivity device built to work with spotty electricity in Africa’s harsh environment, and Kili, a cloud infrastructure startup that is working to improve cloud hosting in Africa, were developed within Kenya and are gaining traction across East Africa. By building in the developing world, these startups are acutely aware of the needs and restrictions of their users, which forces them to stay simple, direct and affordable.

While these startups are building for the developing world, the technology they create can be brought to the developed world as everyone could use a better designed, cheaper solution to getting online or placing a phone call. Captricity, a startup spun out from TIER, initially focused on helping doctors in Uganda accurately and quickly collect data on patient health.

After having success with AIDS clinics in East Africa and continuing to improve its core technology, Captricity’s founders recognized that, while they had been focused on improving paper processes and data collection in the developing world, their tools also solved problems in the U.S. Now, New York Life, Humana and the FDA use Captricity’s data-capture platform to analyze paper documents, the kind of transition these infratech companies could eventually make.

Almost every person should have reliable and affordable access to phone and Internet networks within the next decade.

While startups like Endaga, Range, EveryLayer, BRCK and Tarana are focused on the link between people and Internet and phone connections at the local level, Facebook, Google, SpaceX and OneWeb are pursuing projects to redefine how Internet service providers operate. These corporations are developing alternatives to traditional ground-based networks that struggle with hilly terrain, low-density populations and limited infrastructure. Facebook’s Aquila program of solar-powered drones should begin testing later this year, while Google’s Loon balloons, which float in the stratosphere, are currently being tested in a variety of locations.

Looking even higher, SpaceX and OneWeb are building a constellation of satellites that will continually orbit Earth with the goal of being able to provide Internet access anywhere at any time. OneWeb has raised $500 million from a group of companies, including Qualcomm, and is targeting a 2018 launch date for the first of its satellites.

As the infratech startups work from the bottom up on access to Internet and phone networks, and major corporations work from the top down to provide Internet access everywhere on Earth, almost every person should have reliable and affordable access to phone and Internet networks within the next decade. Developing the tech infrastructure to accomplish this goal will be extraordinarily challenging, but tremendous advances have already been made.

As today’s infratech companies succeed in building alternatives to the infrastructure we take for granted, they will have a potential market in the billions across the developing world, and will fundamentally alter how people around the world live.

Featured Image: Nuk2013/Shutterstock