By Cyrus Farivar
02:00 AM Sep. 12, 2005 PT
SAN FRANCISCO -- At first glance, Inveneo's office eight floors above
Market Street resembles any high-tech startup -- computer parts
scattered on desks, Wi-Fi antennas mounted on the wall. But adjacent
to the front door hangs a large colorful map of Africa, and a few
steps away a stationary bicycle is hooked up to a backpack-size power
From this base, a small group of determined geeks is using solar- and
pedal-powered voice-over-internet-protocol phones and Wi-Fi to bring
local, national and international dialing to remote areas of the
world, beginning with a few villages in western Uganda where nothing
resembling a telephone system has ever existed.
"What we're bringing to them ... is two-way communication, which
they've never had before," said Kristin Peterson, chair and co-founder
of the year-old nonprofit effort.
The organization has already installed its Linux-based VOIP stations
at four isolated villages in Bukuuku subcounty, serving a total of
nearly 3,200 villagers.
Each village in the Bukuuku program has a custom-built computer with a
2-GB microdrive, to eliminate moving parts, along with 256 MB of RAM
and a 533-MHz processor. The computer is wired to a regular analog
telephone set and a directional Wi-Fi antenna, which transmits the
internet signal to a central hub at one of the villages.
Complete with 70-watt solar panels and a bicycle generator -- which
can provide power in the event of no sunlight -- each installation
costs only $1,800, including the outdoor Wi-Fi 802.11b antenna.
Calls between the villages are routed by the hub, and cost nothing --
like dialing another room from a hotel PBX, said Robert Marsh,
Inveneo's CFO and co-founder. Calls destined for outside the village
network go over a satellite link between the hub and the main Ugandan
Mark Summer, Inveneo's CEO and co-founder, said that while most people
in the United States have access to a telephone and can communicate
with anyone in seconds, it is not so in these remote areas.
"Every time they want to do anything, they have to walk down the hill
for three to four kilometers," said Summer. "Being able to make a
local phone call is a big deal to them."
The effort has already earned praise from other like-minded geek
projects in the developing world.
Geekcorps founder Ethan Zuckerman said he has been impressed with
Inveneo's work. He dismisses critics from SBC and Verizon who argue
that there's no need for telecommunications services in these rural
areas, and certainly not for free.
"You need to find out what the price of certain goods are, you need to
find out ... information from the government," he said. "The way
people find this out (now) is by getting on buses or motorbikes."
Zuckerman argues there may even be commercial telecom opportunities in
Uganda, citing a 2000 study conducted as part of the Grameen Bank
project that demonstrated it was highly profitable to sell local
cell-phone service in rural areas in Bangladesh that had been
traditionally ignored by the incumbent telecom operators.
"People are willing to pay far, far more money than we would think,"
he said. "It's pretty amazing."
Marsh, a semi-retired Silicon Valley entrepreneur, also co-founded the
legendary Homebrew Computer Club in Menlo Park, California, in
1975. He said he looks forward to expanding Inveneo's work in other
parts of the world, including Aceh province in Indonesia, as well as
that country's capital, Jakarta.
"Now's my chance to do good for the world," said Marsh. "We'd like to
put technology in use for people who need it most."
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