Internet-over-voice a solution for developing countries

Sending data down the 2G voice channel could be a workable solution in areas that still lack 3G connectivity.

pangea lead image
Credit: Pangea

Here's a question: who remembers the pre-broadband days of web? You'd use a voice line, acoustic coupler, and a modem, right?

Well, believe it or not, huge swaths of the global population might be about to revert back to this old method for sending data. Only this time it will be over mobile 2G networks instead of dial-up copper twisted-pair—and you won't have to wrap your acoustic coupler in a pillow to prevent stray noise corrupting the data transmission.

Modulated sound wave

Startup Pangea Communications, presenting at Disrupt NY, reckons that the answer to a lack of data infrastructure for consumers in places such as Africa is to simply convert data into a modulated sound wave and then send the audio down existing 2G pipes to and from mobile devices. Any mobile device would work.

The sound is converted back into digital data at the mobile device, and then that data is displayed.

Social networking

The idea is that people in countries without 3G can post to Facebook, read a Twitter feed, and so on. In fact, any simple, data-requiring text function can utilize this method of audible data transfer—via voice without needing 3G.

Voice channel

Pangea's system works by converting a request for data, such as a webpage, into a sound wave. It's then sent at 64 kbps over the voice channel. Pangea reconstructs that request at its cloud and returns the content to the mobile device, where it's converted back into data and displayed as text in a web browser.

In addition to social networking, it could be used for email and maybe eventually for a full Android experience, albeit slowly.

Lack of 3G

Company founder Vlad Iuhas, speaking at the Disrupt NY event, estimates that 4 billion people don't have access to an internet connection. That's over half of the world's population. And while some developing areas are beginning to see better 3G internet penetration, Africa isn't.

Africa has 8% 3G coverage rate, Iuhas says.

3G is too expensive

Iuhas thinks that building out more 3G data coverage isn't the only answer to the connectivity problem. Increasing 3G penetration doesn't solve the issue of the affordability of internet access in the developing world. A data plan can cost as much as 20% of a person's salary in some African cities where 3G is available, he says.

Data networks are also expensive and take a long time to build. Consequently, 3G coverage in Africa hasn't changed much in the last few years.

Iuhas says his solution can be provisioned immediately. And in fact, a Mobile Network Operator (MNO) plans to try it in Nigeria this summer.

Business model

Pangea's business model is unique. Iuhas doesn't think that low income among Pangea's target market is a problem. For one thing, there are 4 billion individuals to sell to.

Interestingly, one avenue that the company is exploring is to let MNOs provide the service to customers as a facilitator for 3G.

Iuhas says one of the problems that MNOs have in developing nations is that people don't understand why they should buy internet at all—they can't see a use for it. Because of that perceived lack of value, even if they could afford the subscription, they won't bite.

So Iuhas wants MNOs to offer his service to mobile voice subscribers to get them to understand the value of the internet. Eventually, this will help pave the way for revenue-creating 3G subscriptions.

Full circle

Audible devices like drums and horns were some of the earliest methods used to send messages over distances.

Who would have thought we'd be offering sound wave-converted digital data to over a half of the world's population as the latest thing for getting on the internet in 2015?

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