Rob Katz

Is Open Source Hardware An Answer?

Rowetel Phone BoardsYou have probably heard of Open Source Software – software developed by hackers and released into the community under licenses that freely allow copying and modification. Linux is a good example.

David Rowe, an engineer from Adelaide, South Australia and a small team of hackers around the world are developing “open source hardware” – high quality, professionally designed hardware designs that are being released for others to copy and build on.

The hardware (when combined with open telephony software such as Asterisk) allows anyone to build advanced telephone systems at very low cost. The idea is to help close the digital divide by building telephone exchange (PBX) hardware for $200 with features matching existing PBX systems – that cost $10,000. This makes it possible for a small village to deploy and maintain a telephone system at very low cost.

Recent breakthroughs in technology mean it is now possible to build leading edge Voice Over IP (VOIP) telephone systems at very low cost. The hardware is low power, making solar or other energy sources viable. It can be combined with low-cost wireless mesh networks to allow communication with the world using VOIP – allowing essentially free phone calls.

The hardware is relatively easy to build using low-cost tools and small amounts of capital. It is designed to be manufactured locally in developing countries with minimal training. This can simultaneously lower the cost and overcome import and tariff problems.

The designs are completely royalty free, and could be used as the basis for developing a local high-tech industry. Developing communities could leverage their low labor costs to build and even export the finished product. This is a powerful contrast to the typical situation of developing countries being forced to pay high prices for high tech hardware produced in developed countries. Communities can then “bootstrap” their way out of the poverty trap by earning income from product sales.

Anyone is free to modify and change the designs to suit local conditions and needs. All of the designs have been developed using “open source” Computer Aided Design (CAD) tools so the overheads for development are the cost of a low-end PC. No special (or expensive) development software or hardware is required.

By aggregating the resources of many developing communities, volume discounts could drive hardware costs down even further. It is also possible to integrate other technologies (such as wireless and satellite) to develop a voice/Internet connectivity solution in a single box.

David also has plans to develop low cost satellite communications technology – this could allow a remote village to “get connected” (provide basic voice and Internet connectivity) for a few hundred dollars per site. David’s background includes 20 years experience developing products for the telephone and satellite communications industries, and small business experience.

Please feel free to contact David for more information; he’s also looking for steering advice, some sponsorship, and partners.