People powered phones within range

Mobile phones are now buzzing in 30 rural and indigenous communities in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Mobile phones are now buzzing in 30 rural and indigenous communities in Oaxaca, Mexico. Previously outside of cellular range, the communities teamed up with Rhizomatica, a small non-profit with a big goal: to put people in control of their own cellular networks that operate over the Internet.

Since 2013, Rhizomatica has helped install 17 cellular towers in Mexico’s south with funds raised by community members themselves (around $7,500 per tower), creating networks that now serve around 3,000 daily users in remote places.

About 370 million people live in parts of the world without mobile phone coverage. Even when signals are within range, the price of voice and data are well beyond what is affordable to more than 2 billion people worldwide, according to the International Telecommunications Union.

A Rhizomatica antenna in Alotepec, Oaxaca, Mexico, 2015. Shared by Onion on Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY 3.0)

In Mexico, Rhizomatica determined the technical requirements, and helped form an association with community leaders called Telecomunicaciones Indígenas Comunitarias (TIC) to provide technical and legal assistance to communities that want to get connected.

TIC successfully lobbied the Mexican government for permission to use a slice of the radio spectrum for social good, becoming the first community telecommunications service to receive a social concession, essentially a license, from the Mexican government.

“The legislation is among the most forward-thinking in the world,” Rhizomatica founder Peter Bloom says. His organization was able to convince the regulatory authorities of the necessity of decentralized community networks because there are about 50,000 towns without cell coverage in Mexico, mostly rural and poor, so the reigning telecoms didn’t have a big financial incentive to improve coverage.

Since connecting to an existing carrier could cost millions of dollars, Bloom imagined a cellular network that could be owned by the communities themselves. And that’s what they built: the base station that gives your phone a cell signal is attached to a computer that runs software emulating mobile telephony. Software-defined radio is what makes the entire process affordable — broadcasting that used to require expensive hardware is now possible on any computer.

Monthly usage fees for the networks — usually about $2 per person — cover the cost of the Internet connection and electricity as well as for someone in the community to maintain the network, and about 35 percent of the charges go back to TIC for technical and regulatory support.

Decentralized solutions to problems are nothing new to poor communities in Mexico. The federal government has long neglected local road and communication infrastructure, so residents are used to doing things themselves. “The communities here are very autonomous-minded,” says Bloom.

The name Rhizomatica comes from “rhizome,” a biological term referring to plants whose root systems are distributed and interconnected rather than centralized with a high risk of failure. And that’s the exact ethos they apply to their work.

Next up, Rhizomatica is working with people in Nicaragua, Colombia and Brazil to transfer knowledge and lobby for more favorable legal and regulatory environments there, too. “We want to engage politically, so the ecosystem of the Internet and our digital lives can be more under the control of people who are just coming online,” Bloom says.