The Village Base Station goes live in rural Papua

kheimerl's picture

 This blog has detailed some parts of the Village Base Station project. Our goal is a cellular network designed to to be operated by small-scale organizations and NGOs. We're specifically interested in supporting community; making cellular networks that no longer just bring the outside world into your home but also bring your neighbors closer together. Finally, after months of preparation, hacking, tree climbing (not by us, unfortunately), flying, getting stuck on bad roads, and negotiatation with carriers...  The Village Base Station is open for business. As of February 11th at 12:30pm, we started selling SIMs and pulsa (credits) to the community in Desa, Papua. Here's a picture of our first two customers:

 

First Customers

 

I find these two pretty amusing; the girl has come back for more pulsa four times already. Even in the middle of nowhere tropes about teenage girls hold true. The man is her father, I think. I felt like I shouldn't ask. As of now, we've sold 39 SIMs at 100000 rupiah ($10) a piece and about 1.5 Juta ($150) worth of Pulsa. The network currently only supports SMS for external communications. Users can send and receive SMS using our Swedish Nexmo (www.nexmo.com) phone numbers, but can't call out or receive inbound calls. The SIM cost is high, primiarly because it also pays for a year of a Nexmo number (costing us .5 Euro/mo) and paying for the SIM itself, which we had manufactured:

 

SIM Cards

 

As this project is designed for sustainability, we are partnered closely with WamenaCom, a for-profit company located in the nearby town of Wamena. Terrence is the owner/operator and their primary business is selling internet access in Wamena (and Jayapura soon). WamenaCom set the prices for communications, utilizing their own knowledge of the community. An outbound SMS costs 900 rupiah ($.09) and receiving SMS is free. Local communications (i.e., within our network) is cheaper with SMS being 200 rupiah and calls being 200 rupiah/minute. 

 

There have been a number of interesting discussions. I personally advocated for a monthly fee instead of the large upfront cost of the SIM; something like requiring 5000 rupiah at the start of every month or the number is canned. This was roundly rejected by both Terrence and the community. There have apparently been multiple attempts to charge monthly fees for services like power or banking, and these have all failed in Papua or Desa. It's strange to me, as the added flexibility would allow people to take less of a risk, but it seems as though that way of thinking is at odds with the desire for simplicity here. 

 

We're very close to covering our operating costs as well as paying for the hardware. In the last few days, as we've slowly grown the network, we're seeing SMS rates of around 300/day, which translates to around 25USD of profit for WamenaCom and the local community school hosting our tower. The internet for the school (which was here much before we were) costs 300USD/mo, or around 10USD/day. That leaves 15USD/day for power (which is provided to the whole campus) and maintenance. Our Pulsa-seller is making a tidy profit as well, he's making around 10USD/day himself by selling pulsa at the same rate the local carriers do (12k for 10, 24k for 20, 55k for 50, 105k for 100). This is without real saturation in the market, we've only been selling SIMs for three days. 

 

All in all, this is a very promising start. Our stakeholders are receiving real value from the service, as is the community. Obviously many things will change as the community adjusts to this new device; users will be less enthusiastic as it ceases to be a novelty and more users will enter the network. Interestingly, we've seen a recent rise in local communications: originally all was outbound to friends and family, more is between community members now. The network itself is stabilizing as new phones follow the protocols to varying degrees and require code modifications from us. I expect that work to take the next week, at least. The BTS is crashing a lot; we're lucky that most of the communications are SMS so no one notices!

 

We have yet to start the BTS services, of which we have three lined up. The first is SMS mailing lists, a service that allows communities to broadcast to small groups of users. The pricing on that will be tricky, as we want to encourage its use but also not have it compete with direct SMS. The second is Desa idol, a singing competition designed to encourage voice communications and record songs from the most linguistically diverse place on Earth. Lastly, we have find-a-friend, a service designed to break the cultural and tribal boundaries present in Desa. In that service, users call a number and are connected to someone they've never talked to before. We're not sure if that's a good idea (what if you get connected to someone's wife) but we're figuring out how to make it work in a safe, stable way.