The city of Ibadan borders one end of a corridor of shanty towns in Nigeria that is hundreds of miles long. More than 70 million people live there – more than in England – largely without water, electricity, and sewage disposal. It is said to be the world’s largest slum, and worldwide an estimated 1 billion members of our species live in such ‘shanty cities’.
How might the standard of living for these people best be raised? Obviously the infrastructure and supporting economy found in the rich cities is beyond foreseeable reach, given endemic corruption, and even if they were not, there simply isn’t any source of funding to resolve the appalling conditions the slum residents face incessantly. Only sustainable models, not subsidies, can grow and make inroads across such masses of people.
Access to the Internet is ordinarily out of the question for slum residents, although there nonetheless are Internet service providers (ISPs) offering conventional plans, owing to the dense population and the indelible thirst by humans for messaging and information. Until recently, phone communications had to be hardwired, but cellphones are now a tantalizing quest for the poor – they can sense the opportunity that wireless is bringing. But how can it be implemented sustainably and be duplicated anywhere?
Twenty years ago I was a small software developer who moved to the Gulf Islands near Vancouver, Canada as a better place to raise our children. Unfortunately there was no Internet service there, and even then a software firm with no access to the Net was in a sad predicament. Driven by necessity, we gambled on an expensive wireless feed from a nearby mountain top, and in so doing became the local ISP for that group of islands. The business supported our family for the next decade, even as my own software products became obsolete. Let me tell you what I learned.
We delivered the Internet to the island residents within the context of a sustainable business, not under the auspices of government funding. Could the same opportunity now be afforded within these slum “cities”? Could it be structured to emulate the success women have had with micro-financing of very small operations, and be repeatable throughout the world of shanty cities? I believe it can, and with very little, if any, investment.
A conventional cellular ISP erects a tower in an elevated location and invites subscribers. Various plans are offered, largely defined by minutes on the network and the data transferred. The speeds are usually 3 Mbs for 3G and 100+ Mbs for 4G. We’ll realistically just consider the 3G option, but knowing that the 4G generation is coming assures us that we will have an expansion path in the years to come.
Here is a rate page from Airtel, a prominent Nigerian cellular ISP serving Ibadan http://goo.gl/rskUw
We can see that a rate for web browsing of 3GB/month is about $50 (1 N = ~1 cent). This is in a country where the average person earns $1-$2 per day. This tells us two things: that a standard cellphone rate typical of the western world is available, but also beyond the reach of most slum residents. Yet therein lies opportunity as well, because a service for sharing that rate among neighbours might also provide a woman an income sufficient to survive.
A Poort Server
So how might this work? The Poort is the lowest-cost “computer” available as a “server” for a mini-ISP, because it can utilize cheap <$80 tablets (or older/used ones) and because it draws at most 10 watts of electricity, which can be provided by a rooftop solar panel charging a car battery. Neighbours can be sold monthly passwords for WiFi – an unconventional customer layer.
Why use a Poort instead of its bare tablet? When you are planning to share Internet access using WiFi the host computer can’t be moved around, as the connections are based on LOS (line of sight) and you would constantly lose the signal for some of your customers. A tablet would also be a prime target for theft by itself. An old laptop could work in theory, but the current draw is high and it is all too portable. The cellular ISP may insist on a single standard device for their network, and this will make it easier to identify (IMEI number) and protect them from theft or subsequent use.
Clearly this scheme will have its best chance if there is a Poort appliance fixed on a the wall in the woman’s home ,with its welcome strong speaker and rentable USB charging ports. The Poort also serves to showcase her micro-business and build conviviality – it is simply a micro Internet server that happens to use a tablet for its circuitry – it ceases to be a tablet per se.
The Micro-ISP Business Model
Microfinance is a proven model for women in poor countries who run very small businesses to augment their meager incomes. Becoming a micro-ISP is an interesting option to offer them for a number of reasons:
- Running a WiFi service for neighbours is an easily understood and low-maintenance business, that can be done by women in the home.
- The women can mentor and support each other technically and financially. It is this solidarity and autonomy that empowers the micro-finance business model.
- This Co-operative would finance the local’s first terminal and solar setup.
- They might assemble, and rent Poort terminals to their own clients – its casing can be made for less than $10 in most countries, and its USB bus and speaker costs are also modest.
- The majority of their clients would probably be using older cellphones and tablets connected via WiFi for messaging, especially SMS (texting). This is low bandwidth traffic when video is controlled – to bring texting to poor teenagers would surely be a miracle in their eyes!
Acquiring Cellular Service: The importance of a Micro-ISP Co-op
The women would have to be organized into a formal co-operative that is the collector and guarantor of all their accounts. This unity will make them attractive to cellular providers in poor countries, who rely on a roil of prepaid accounts in large part that are expensive to administer via resellers, and with government influence the co-op could be granted a wholesale rate. This is not the same as a subsidy; as this plan can only work and be repeatable if it makes sense to everybody financially.
To cover 70 million souls the model must cookie-cutter and be supported by all parties. But it is a very highly scalable model that can mushroom overnight.
The Co-op’s cellular accounts might have the following features:
- The cellular ISP must allow their tablet(s) onto their network – a Poort standard tablet helps – and then:
- Provide 3G – 4G speeds with unlimited data plans, because the women cannot bill individual customers for data used, and they have to accurately know what their account’s cost is each month. Again, this arrangement must be negotiated at a high level and in good faith, with proper backing by all levels of business and government. And critically, little if any additional infrastructure is required of existing cellular providers.
- A method must be put in place to limit downloads, particularly for video. The intention is to provide access to the Net for messaging and static web pages, but not for movies, porn, gaming or streaming of any kind. The woman must be able to connect at least 20 families for perhaps $10/month each with satisfactory throughput. A dedicated Android app on her Poort could probably control streaming. While $10/mo may seem high for such poor people, they too may be sharing it in turn, and it must be realized that the cost of “backhauling” data from these parts of the world is itself more expensive, so families must share cellphone/tablet usage for affordability. A Poort serves the whole family equitably, and perhaps some neighbour’s kids as well.
- An alternative to downloading is available using the SD (Secure Digital) card that Poort tablets have to boost their data storage, and these commonly range from 4GB to 64GB. These can hold movies, music collections, and complete, free education courses ranging right through to university. Renting these as a service could form an important part of the woman’s revenue, and the cards help protect community bandwidth. The women could be modestly compensated by the government if they function as de facto post offices, phone companies and health officers for their subscribers – these are matters for their Co-op to lobby for.
The Poor on the Net
To say that the poor’s lives would change if they had access to the Internet would be a patent understatement. Far from plotting to overthrow the government, they would likely see their opportunity for lifelong education in all matters, find access to health information, and allow women to make a living wage from respected self-employment.
A window onto the Net is achievable for the desperately poor, a portal into their own possibilities as knowing participants in life. It would grant them some equal footing with the rest of humanity – and a way out.
All they need now is some founding groups to get them started.