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The DIY Cell Phone Revolution in Mexico

A non-profit helps rural, small towns create their own cellular networks

San Juan Yaee, Oaxaca is a small town of 500 people in Mexico that, until very recently, did not have access to their own cell phone network, according to a recent article in Wired. Rhizomatica, a telecommunications non-profit based in Oaxaca, is looking to change that by installing a cell phone tower and a network. Yaee will be one of hopefully six more networks installed throughout Oaxaca by the end of the year.

Yaee and other communities pay 120,000 pesos ($8,000 dollars) upfront for the equipment and installation, about one-sixth of what Mexican commercial provider Movistar charges for a similar rural installation. Seventy five percent of the payment covers the cost of hardware, and the remaining portion is for Rhizomatica’s time and expenses. After installation, subscribers to the community network will pay 30 pesos (about $2) per month for local calls and texts. After paying for electricity and maintenance, the leftover profit is for the town.

While many of Yaee’s residents already own cell phones, prior to Rhizomatica’s installation of a tower people were primarily using them as cameras and mp3s. If they wanted to make a call or text, they would either have to drive several hours to the nearest city, or go to the top of a hill and hope to catch a signal from a far away base tower.

The lack of coverage in Yaee and many other towns is not an oversight by major telecom companies; instead, they are being strategically ignored. Cell phones have proven their worth as a great democratizing tool for developing countries, but they are not very useful on their own. The device’s utility lies in the network and that network is provided by a company that wants to make a profit. If there aren’t enough people in a particularly area to pay for network subscriptions, cellular providers simply won’t install their infrastructure there.

According to the International Telecommunication Union, only 55 percent of Mexicans were using cell phones in 2011, due to limited access and high prices, but Mexico is not the only country that struggles to provide rural cell phone access to its citizens. The Global System for Mobile Communications reports that 1.6 billion people in rural parts of developing countries don’t have access to mobile networks. Peter Bloom and his collaborators at Rhizomatica believe that in order to make the benefits of cell phones available to the people who need them most, it’s not enough to democratize the hardware and make the phones themselves cheap. The infrastructure, the network itself, needs to be reformed.

Until then though, Rhizomatica and the rural communities that benefit will stick to the do-it-yourself method.

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