All posts by LL

Remote Mexican Villages Build Their Own Cell Networks

The sound of a mobile phone is routine in much of the world. But it’s a recent arrival here in Talea de Castro, a mountain town in the southern state of Oaxaca, Mexico.

This radio report first aired on NPR’s Here and Now in partnership with IEEE Spectrum: [html] [mp3].

“Right now we’re on the road leading up to Talea,” says Peter Bloom. “We’re maybe like three kilometers away, so we’re actually getting service from, well, two base stations that Rhizomatica has.

Bloom is the founder of Rhizomatica, a non-profit group in Oaxaca city that has helped 16 remote villages install and operate their own cellphone networks. These are places commercial operators said were too small for them to bother installing a tower.

Mexico’s biggest telecom firm, Telcel, has had a near-monopoly in the country for decades, so it’s slow to expand infrastructure to less profitable small towns. To get service, Bloom says, what usually happens is, “someone in the government talks to someone in a huge company and gives them money and they go and install something and then they go away.”

The result is spotty service. It’s also expensive for users: the company doesn’t lower its rates even though it gets a government subsidy.

“It’s a business for them, but it’s a human right for everybody,” Bloom says. “So the first thing we kind of say is, one, communication is a fundamental human right. That’s not just what we think, you know, it’s backed up in different treaties and so on.”

An economic boost

Communication also has economic value. One recent report by the industry group GSM Alliance estimated that doubling national cellphone penetration adds half a point of GDP growth.

In Talea, economic growth has taken many shapes since the arrival of the community cell network. Taxi driver Eliel Méndez says it’s gotten easier to get business.

“There’s more communication, people hire us more, there are more clients than other places,” says Méndez.

The local cooperative in Talea, called Talea GSM, has around 250 active users and costs around a third what the big telecoms charge. Rhizomatica has also started networks reaching 15 other villages.

Growing competition and demand

As the coverage area has grown, so has the competition. The multinational telecom company Movistar built a tower in Talea after seeing the success of the community-owned network. Movistar has taken some customers away, but Talea’s community cellphone manager Keyla Mesulemeth is unfazed.

“We say it’s good that there’s another company in the community because the people will notice the prices and service, right?” says Mesulemeth.

And there’s demand for more and better services, such as Internet on their smart phones.

“People are demanding more all the time. Now they ask for more things. Now they want data, now they want WhatsApp. So it’s that, right? Now that they know it, they want more,” Mesulemeth says.

Peter Bloom adds that it’s easy to replicate the technology.

“That’s the whole point of technology kind of, it just does what it’s supposed to do, but the social part can be more difficult,” he says.

The Mexican government recently published telecom rules that for the first time reserve some frequency bands for community use. Bloom says that gives him hope that Rhizomatica’s model could work elsewhere, wherever local communities are prepared to manage their own networks.

“We’re trying to build links with people in Argentina, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, other places, Ecuador,” Bloom says. “I mean, we don’t necessarily have any intention of going and doing it for them. It’s more like help them get set up so they can do it themselves.”

Who Are You?

I often travel to different countries chasing stories. It’s hard for me, let alone my credit card issuers, to predict where I’ll be at any given time. This summer, for example, I moved from Madrid, Spain, to Oaxaca, Mexico, and in November I made quick trips to both California and Nicaragua. Confused by my unpredictable spending patterns, my credit card companies often block my legitimate transactions. Continue reading

Recyclers in Ixtlán de Juárez, Mexico, learn how to separate plastic bottles for recycling into much more valuable 3D printer filament.

3D printing takes off in Oaxaca

A busy street climbs a hill on the edge of Oaxaca de Juárez, the capital of the state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico. Up one flight of stairs in a fresh-painted white residential  building you’ll find the FabLab community fabrication center and Oaxaca’s first locally-produced 3D printer and plastic extruder.

This radio report first aired on Deutsche Welle in English: [html] [mp3]. The photos here are mine and first published here.

See also my magazine feature on this project for PBS NOVA Next: “Building a New Economy on Soda Bottles and a 3D Printer.”

When U.S. Telecoms Come Calling, Will Cuba Pick Up The Phone?

This month, U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration began opening the long-closed diplomatic door to Cuba. Among other things the President’s plan makes way for is the ability of U.S. companies to sell telecommunications equipment to the island. Legislation imposing a broad economic embargo still stands, but the administration has some leeway over activity that improves the flow of information under the banner of “spreading democracy.”

(Exceptions to the old embargo abound: the U.S. National Science Foundation actually provided Cuba’s first Internet connection in 1996 as part of a broader connectivity drive for developing countries.)

What remains unclear, says computer scientist and Cuba telecom blogger Larry Press of California State University in Dominguez Hills, is what use the Cuban government has for U.S. telecom equipment. Continue reading