Bad cell service? Just start your own telco

GSM spectrum is getting assigned to community use in some places.

mexico lead image
Credit: Fairwaves

We've all enjoyed a good moan about our cellular phone service over the years. Iffy coverage, bizarre billing practices, and infuriating customer service have all provided a source of jovial dinner table chat in my home. As the expression goes: you've got to laugh or you'd cry.

But our trials are nothing compared to what some people experience. Many in rural areas have no service at all.

Those unfortunate souls have, until now, had no redress. When powerful telco won't provide service, you simply don't have service.

However, in Mexico, that's changing. Just as individual citizens in some Mexican communities have bandied together to create their own prisons (due to a lack of them), citizens are also creating their own local cellular systems.

Non-profits

Rhizomatica is one such non-profit operation. It has latched onto the concept that in Mexico, indigenous peoples have a right to operate radio stations where major broadcasters aren't providing service.

Lawyers for Rhizomatica have successfully argued that this right extends to Mobile Network Operator (MNO)-style phone service, too. Hence the non-profit community MNOs and the local airwaves being used for phone calls.

Community GSM

In fact, the Mexican regulator IFETEL has now assigned some GSM spectrum for community use.

The build-out in small villages such as Talea de Castro is aided by cheap equipment and open-source software. The villagers just install their own antennas on private residences.

Micro-telcos

Obviously, the key to all this, in addition to now cheap switches and equipment—it costs about $7,500 to build a Rhizomatica-style mobile base station, according to the Economist—is overcoming regulatory hurdles, which Rhizomatica appears to have done in Mexico.

The group has been able to get a strictly rural cellular service defined at government.

Equipment

Boston-based Fairwaves supplies some of the equipment used in Rhizomatica's projects. Fairwaves makes equipment for community cellular networks that works with open-source software.

Nuran Wireless also provides equipment. The Quebec-based company makes low-power micro base-stations and a GSM network in a box.

Fairwaves says, in a blog post, that it has seen similar legislation in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Sweden, but never before in a country that desperately needs it. It estimates that 50,000 villages in Mexico don't have any mobile service.

Distributed network

In the setups, each village deploys its own GSM network with its own base station. They are connected to other villages via VoIP.

All villages can call one another for free and subscribers can roam between the villages.

Patch antennas, located on roof-installed bamboo poles, are used where the base station is not located in the center of the village. That allows for penetration into the adobe structures, Fairwaves says on its website.

U.S. tribal position

And here's something to think about: In the U.S., too, there is a thrust towards indigenous radio.

The FCC wants to see more tribal ownership of radio stations on tribal land. About one-third of the 4.1 million Native American population lives on tribal land. Those geographic areas can also feature some spotty cellular service.

While the FCC Tribal Radio Priority, as it's called, is designed for AM and FM broadcasting, tribal-owned entities might want to glance over the border at Mexico's rural communications future, for a view of what can be accomplished with a bit of government cooperation.

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