A Longitudinal Study of Local, Sustainable, Small-Scale Cellular Networks

Kurtis Heimerl, Shaddi Hasan, Kashif Ali, Tapan Parikh, Eric Brewer


There are more than six billion active cellular subscribers, and they spend more than $1 trillion a year on communications. Despite this, hundreds of millions remain unconnected. One reason for this gap is the top-down nature of traditional networks, with large telecommunications firms deciding where coverage is to be available. This is enforced by the large capital investment required for cellular systems. Recent technological innovations have enabled cheaper cellular equipment. This shift is enabling new models of cellular telephony. Small organizations are suddenly capable of becoming service providers. In this article we ask, “How successful would bottom-up cellular networks be?” Essentially we argue for and demonstrate a local cellular network, employing existing infrastructure to operate at a lower cost and bring coverage to areas traditionally unable to support cellular deployments. We demonstrate this concept with an ongoing 16-month-long field deployment in rural Papua, Indonesia. This network is live, with 349 subscribers providing US$980 per month for the operator. We also show through user interviews that this network provides a valuable service to the community.

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