Pangea Delivers Data-Over-Voice Infrastructure In Emerging Markets

One of the most interesting problems facing the technology industry is getting the billions of unconnected people around the world online.

Facebook and Google think aerial drones are the answer, with plans to put hundreds or thousands of flying robots in the atmosphere to beam down data rather than building expensive infrastructure in remote regions. Given the periodic updates we get on their progress, it seems both solutions are more than a crazy pipe dream.

But they’re also not quite ready for full deployment and won’t be for some time. In the meantime, startups and nonprofits have tried to find ways to send data over the systems that have been built out in emerging markets, including SMS (which has already been adapted for uses beyond simple text messaging, like payments).

Pangea, which presented onstage at Disrupt NY, offered a solution for bringing the unconnected billions online that will sound familiar to those of us who were on the web before broadband and mobile became the norm: sending data over the infrastructure used to send voice calls.

While the concept is fundamentally the same as good-ol’ dial-up, the implementation is far more intricate. Telcos with landlines expected their customers to sometimes use their lines to connect to the Internet, whereas mobile carriers try to cut out anything that isn’t a human voice.

So Pangea took the hard route and figured out how they could deploy data within those confines. Their method involves turning data into a sound wave, modulating it to sound like a human voice to a telco’s backend, and then reverting it back to data on the end-user’s device.

Every time you want to send an email or check Twitter, it’ll make a quick (~10 seconds) call and transfer the requested data at up to 64 kilobits per second. Given the slow speeds, Pangea is only for text for now, but co-founder Vlad Iuhas says that down the road, it’ll offer the full Android experience, albeit a lot slower than most users in markets with data infrastructure are used to.

Getting access through Pangea requires installing an app on a feature phone or Android device, which is problematic when the market you’re going after doesn’t have access to data in the first place. The startup’s immediate solution is to have an initial user who commutes to a major city download the app over data, then send the app to other residents of their village or town over Bluetooth.

Iuhas hopes that carriers in Africa, Asia and Latin America will one day pre-install their app on phones (and maybe even pay for usage). The company plans to begin rolling out service in Nigeria this summer, working in concert with one of Africa’s largest wireless carriers. If that goes well, the company plans to deploy across the continent in the not-too-distant future.

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Here’s a rough transcript of the post-presentation QA session:

Can you talk about the business model? It seems like a non-profit.

The way we will make money differs from country to country. Our main goal is to get our hands into as many people as possible, there are 4 billion unconnected people. We can do rev-share, sponsored data, but first we need it in hands.

Do you need a carrier deal or pre-installation?

That would be ideal, but a user could head into a city where there is data to download the app and then bring it back to people in their towns or villages.

Looking in the long-term, assuming infrastructure appears in developing countries, what does your company turn into?

Our mission is to connect everybody to the Internet as quickly as possible. When that happens, we’ll have millions of users to monetize. We’re a software company, we’ll innovate.

Will you focus on one country and try to spread virally?

We’re focusing on Nigeria, and hope to launch there early this summer.

What about the rate of growth of 3G? In five years, hundreds of millions of people will have 3G service.

In Asia that is true, in Africa the rate of growth is much slower.

How do you get people who don’t know why they’d use the Internet to be interested?

If people can go on Facebook, or Twitter, or read the news, they’ll discover the value of the Internet.

Have you talked to any carriers?

We have, we’re going to launch with a carrier in Nigeria this summer, and a large carrier is an investor.