By David Talbot on December 11, 2013
How Remote Places Can Get Cellular Coverage by Doing It Themselves
With Swedish telephone numbers and a tree-bound base station, aremote Indonesian village runs its own telecommunications company.
A four-hour drive from the nearest cellular coverage in the remote highlands of Papua,Indonesia, a new kind of guerilla telecom network is operating, albeit outside the law, usinga cheap base station roped into a treetop.The technology could provide a new model for self-managed “last mile” mobile coverage inthe world’s hardest-to-reach areas, where traditional top-down telecommunicationsbusiness models don’t work.The project was set up by a team from the University of California, Berkeley. The resultingnetwork is now operated by a tiny stand-alone telecommunications company run by a localNGO, with a laptop for local billing and a satellite connection to the rest of the world. Thenetwork relies on Swedish phone numbers because no local telecommunications companywould provide them.“It’s a telco-in-a-box that we put in a tree,” says Kurtis Heimerl, a developer at RangeNetworks and grad student at UC Berkeley who led the project. “It’s a demonstration thatthese populations can profitably and sustainably manage their own networks. We don’tneed telcos to do this; these communities can do this by themselves.”The village where the network is situated sits in the tropical highlands of Papua—a regionwhere indigenous people avoided contact with westerners until scientists stumbled uponthem in 1938.The project was built partly with existing infrastructure: a small hydro-power generator anda satellite dish that provided Internet connectivity to a local school. To this the Berkeleygroup added a base station for local cellular connectivity, a battery for nighttime usage, aWi-Fi router for a local Internet hot spot, and a billing system. The project started operating this year with an initial $10,000 investment. It has 187 cellularsubscribers and an average of $830 per month in revenue (including $368 in profits). Thatcompany provides several jobs, including three for people who sell airtime credits.Though the researchers say they got tacit approval from high-level figures in theIndonesian government to run the project, it has no formal license. Gaining legal access to