In the Democratic Republic of Congo, less than 20% of the population has access to the Internet. But an American startup called Ukama is starting to test the use of small, solar-powered cellular base stations that can help more people get online. In places like the United States, the technology could help provide internet access in times of disaster – when other infrastructure isn’t working – or allow you to create a private network at home with better range than WiFi. .
When someone buys the equipment for their own use, there is no service contract. “You don’t pay when you’re on your own network, it’s your network,” says Ukama founder Kashif Ali, who previously led Facebook’s OpenCellular project. The startup just raised $2.2 million in seed funding led by Fifty Years, an early-stage venture capital firm focused on using technology to solve global problems. It also just launched a campaign on Crowd Supply, a Kickstarter-like platform for hardware. The design is final and ready for manufacturing, Ali says, but the campaign will help the company validate the market.
Ukama has created cellular base stations small enough to fit in a backpack, unlike the giant cell towers used by large corporations. In the United States, the technology works on CBRS (Citizens Broadband Radio Service), a radio spectrum that the FCC opened up in 2015 to allow unlicensed users to run their own networks. The devices are designed to make setting up a private network as easy as plugging in a router, although the open-source hardware and software means people with more skills can customize it. Some customers may choose to use the technology because they want more security (Ukama cannot see what individual users are doing online). Others might not be happy with their current service. The speed depends on how many people are using the network, but the first version of the hardware can handle 155 Mbps, a typical 4G/LTE speed, Ali says.
On a smartphone, you’ll still use your existing carrier for calls and texts, but Ukama covers data usage; there is also an option to pay for cheap roaming data when you are away from your base station. Ultimately, the company wants to help create a large, decentralized network of devices, with clients able to access other nodes as they move. Ukama also plans to offer commercial services to companies with IoT devices, such as robots or sensors, that need a reliable and secure connection.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the company is launching a pilot project next year, most people live on less than $2.15 a day and won’t buy base stations themselves, which start at $599. . But local entrepreneurs can buy the equipment to launch ISPs. (When an entrepreneur sets up a network with customers, whether in the DRC or elsewhere, they must also pay ongoing service fees to connect to the Internet via satellite; Ukama is exploring various financing options for low-income countries). income.) The equipment, designed to use as little energy as possible, can be charged by solar panels. The outdoor unit, combined with another device that amplifies the signal, can cover approximately one kilometer. “It’s a typical rural community in Africa,” says Ali.
When entrepreneurs launch a network in the DRC, Ukama expects them to offer a few different service plans, including a free option with a capped access amount per month, and options to pay a dollar or two for more data. Businesses and others who can afford more can pay for regular service. “If we can actually make it work on the business side of things in the DRC, because it’s really, really difficult at a really, really low cost. . . then it can be replicated very easily in other parts of the world, especially in other parts of Africa,” Ali says.
According to a UN estimate, nearly 3 billion people in the world still do not have access to the Internet. Other companies are also working to change that. (SpaceX, for example, is trying to bring its Starlink satellite service to parts of Africa.) But Ukama’s solution is a cheaper way to reach more people, and it can also help start new ones. businesses. “It empowers entrepreneurs,” Ali says. “So it’s not about another multinational telecommunications company coming in and taking their money out.”
Correction: This article originally stated that Ukama’s devices could replace an internet service provider, but the company clarified after publication that the technology only creates a cellular data network; it still needs a separate internet connection.
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