Community Cellular Networks: Providing Cellular Coverage to Rural Communities

By Sarah White, DIL Competitions Coordinator

Cellular phones provide vital communication service across the globe, but more than 1 billion people worldwide live beyond the reach of existing networks. As a result, rural users are systematically denied access to valuable services such as emergency communications, taken advantage of by intermediaries because of information asymmetries, and waste already limited resources on less efficient mechanisms for communicating with friends and family outside of their community.

To respond to these challenges, the Technology and Infrastructure for Emerging Regions (TIER) group at UC Berkeley has developed the Community Cellular Network (CCN), formerly known as the Village Base Station (VBTS). The project serves as one of the Development Impact Lab’s (DIL) demonstration projects—selected for their promise in creating real and measurable impact, while also serving to demonstrate and refine the Development Engineering approach and inform DIL’s strategies for scaling transformative innovations.

In the highland villages of Papua, where the first CCN was deployed in February 2013, the area is too remote and the people too few and poor for a big phone company to have interest in building needed infrastructure for a cellular network. The CCN is a GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) cellular tower designed for low density areas owned and operated by local communities. Powered by sun or wind, it provides villagers with local calls, text messaging, and web surfing. Each CCN is extremely inexpensive (costing under $10,000) and efficient, using less than 50W average power draw.

Now in operation for 18 months, the CCN deployed in rural Papua provides cellular coverage to a remote community of 1,500 people previously without basic cellular service. As of June 2014, the network has handled over 450,000 communications, including 140,000 out-of-network text messages, 100,000 in-network SMS text messages, 55,000 local calls, and over 7,000 credit transfers.

The network is also sustainable, generating nearly US$1,000 per month for a local primary school, while also
supporting the school’s internet access and community building. When asked about the impact of the network, Ben, the school’s director explained, “The system has greatly increased our efficiency. When we send our fixer to town to do shopping it is generally a two-day trip. Invariably, things happen in this environment: some of the supplies we need are not available or there are changes or additions that have to be made. With a few short text messages, we can now work out what would have meant another two day trip to town.”

To scale the model and bring coverage to those worldwide still lacking cellular coverage, the technology is
being commercialized as Currently, Endaga is making about $1,000 per month from a few hundred customers and expects to break even on its $10,000 investment in a year.