Where Cellular Networks Don’t Exist, People Are Building Their Own
Wednesday, January 14, 2015
Inside the cloud that is perpetually draped over the small town of San Juan Yaee, Oaxaca, Raúl Hernández Santiago crouches down on the roof of the town hall and starts drilling. Men wearing rain gear of various impermeabilities cluster above him, holding a 4-meter-tall tower in place. Braided wires trail from four small circles welded near its midpoint; eventually those will be bolted or tied down in order to hold the tower steady during the frequent storms that roll through this part of Mexico’s Sierra de Juárez mountains. They don’t want it falling over every time it rains. Ninety thousand of the town’s pesos—a bit over $6,000—are invested in the equipment lashed to the top of the tower, in a town where many residents get by on subsistence agriculture.
The tower—which Hernández, Yaee’s blacksmith, welded together out of scrap metal just a few hours earlier—is the backbone of Yaee’s first cellular network. The 90,000 pesos come in the form of two antennas and an open-source base station from a Canadian company called NuRAN. Once Hernández and company get the tower installed and the network online, Yaee’s 500 citizens will, for the first time, be able to make cell phone calls from home, and for cheaper rates than almost anywhere else in Mexico.
Strategically ignored by Mexico’s major telecoms, Yaee is putting itself on the mobile communications grid with the help of a Oaxaca-based telecommunications non-profit called Rhizomatica. Its founder, Peter Bloom, is among the men currently getting soaked on the roof of town hall. It’s May of 2014, and this is the third of what he jokingly calls “artisanal cell phone installations” that he’s led in the Sierra de Juárez in the past year and a half—the first of their kind in the world.
By the end of the year, he will have installed six more networks all over the state of Oaxaca, bringing the total to nine. Armed with an experimental concession from the Mexican government that grants Rhizomatica access to coveted cellular spectrum all over the country, Bloom is slowly but surely bringing coverage to towns that have been left out of the 21st century’s most important technological revolution.