Zapoteco Community Launches Autonomous Cellular Network

In the mountains of southern Mexico, a new communications paradigm is taking shape: independent cellular networks for indigenous and rural communities overlooked by large telecom providers. The Rising Voices grantee project Dizha Kieru has recently made a lot of headlines in the Mexican press (Noticias del Istmo, Sin Embargo, Milenio, and Nacion) and internationally (AFP) with their innovative project that has brought an autonomous, community-administered cellular network to the Zapoteco village of Villa Talea de Castro.

Rising Voices is supporting their citizen journalism initiative aimed at taking advantage of this network to send and receive news from residents via SMS.


Photo courtesy of Rhizomatica

When the major Mexican telecom giant Telcel refused to work with communities of less than 5,000 people, the small indigenous village of Villa Talea de Castro took matters in to their own hands, establishing an independent cellular network with the help of Philadelphia-based NGO Rhizomatica. Some commentators have called this network a “victory for civil society against a historical monopoly.”

The video below captures community members’ reflections on the launch of the network:

The problem in Mexico and other countries, according to the Rhizomatica webpage, is that

…Currently, only very large, powerful companies have access to the mobile spectrum and the concessions to provide cellular service. But their business model and the technology that these traditional providers use have proven unable to solve the problem of connecting much  of the world. We want to break this oligopoly and allow communities to become service providers as well.

Advances in open-source technology have allowed communities and individuals to provide carrier-grade cellular service. The network, called Red Celular de Talea (RCT), utilizes a 900Mhz radio network (an open frequency), free, open-source software to route the calls, and a VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) provider for calls to the United States. The technology, provided by California based Range Networks, was approved for a two-year test permit by the Mexican Federal Telecommunications Commission (Cofetel). The current 600 subscribers pay 15 pesos – around 1.2 USD – a month for the service. Local community members agreed to limit phone calls to five minutes in order not to saturate the lines.

According to a press release by Rhizomatica and other community organizations,

La iniciativa buscó identificar las condiciones técnicas, económicas y jurídicas para que las comunidades indígenas que no cuentan con telefonía celular, pudieran hacerlo… así la comunidad opera una red privada interna conectada al servicio de internet que proporciona un concesionario o comercializadora de servicios y a través de éste, un concesionario de voz sobre protocolo de internet VoIP, da el servicio de telefonía al exterior.

The initiative sought to identify the technical, economic and legal conditions so indigenous communities that do not have cell phone access, are able to obtain the service …this way, the community can operate an internal private network connected to an Internet service where they can provide distributor or dealer services and through that, become a VoIP distributor that allows international phone services.

Currently working in Mexico and Nigeria, Rhizomatica aims to facilitate community development through greater connectivity, filling in the spaces that large telecom providers miss. Their mission is to “increase access to mobile telecommunications to the over 2 billion people without affordable coverage and the 700 million with none at all.”

Villa Talea de Castro was just one of around 50,000 indigenous villages in Mexico that lack cellular service. The community aims to grow the project in the future, reaching out to other villages to form regional, independent cellular networks across rural Oaxaca.

To learn more about Rhizomatica, you can follow them on Twitter or read their blog.

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