Endaga recently completed a $1.2 million round of seed funding to help it advance its mission of bringing cellular access to more than 1 billion people around the world who don't have it.
Note: This is cellular access, not Internet access. And it's regular old cellular--emphasis on old, as in 2.5G GSM/GPRS--and it uses people's existing phones in extremely remote communities. But these communities could one day tie into the moon-shot, forward-looking types of projects that Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) is pursuing with Project Loon or Facebook (NASDAQ: FB) is chasing with Internet.org and drones.
Workers install Endaga's CCN1 cellular hardware in Papua. (Source: Endaga)
Endaga already has one pilot project in Papua, Indonesia, with a primary school, and it's targeting remote areas in Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Philippines. The idea is to have people in the communities running the networks rather than outside companies coming in to do it.
Endaga co-founder and CEO Kurtis Heimerl told FierceWirelessTech that Indonesia alone represents a big opportunity, as its cellular penetration rate is just about 60 percent, according to the GSMA. The geographies the company is targeting are especially hard to reach. Papua, for example, is a four-hour drive from cellular coverage. "If you want to get those people on the network, you have to use traditional GSM frequencies," he said. "In our network, it's just a SIM card, you put it in your phone and you're on the network."
"We utilize a great amount of open source code. This is all built off OpenBTS," the project started by David Burgess and Harvind Samra, he said. Other similar open source projects are coming along and when those are in a more mature place, "we'll probably be able to put a product together" with them. "But right now, those are immature, so we're not able to."
In the long-term, 4G is likely going to be the way to go. But for now, the candy-bar, old-Nokia style phones are still the most pervasive in these areas. These types of communities don't have relevant content in their languages on Facebook or Google, but they can connect with cellular using their native language.
That's not to say they won't get to the point where they want Facebook and other social media, but they have to start somewhere and scale it up. "That ramp-up is really important, and what our network lets you do is drop the Google balloon connectivity, plug our network into it and suddenly you have hundreds of people using that connectivity for communications and then maybe they can ramp up to the Internet from there," he said.
Endaga doesn't compete with Google's Loon Project or Facebook's Internet.org. "What they built really is more like backhaul, and we're really trying to build the end point solution that fits local needs and gives people what they want," he said. Ideally, the Endaga boxes would connect to the Loon balloons. "We would love that. Right now, we connect over satellite, which is significantly more expensive and lower bandwidth. Google Loon is really a competitor to satellite access, more than anything else. So we would love to have that backhaul available."
Just to add another twist, what Endaga is doing is considered illegal because it doesn't have spectrum licenses. But Heimerl is confident that he and his colleagues can get local governments to rewrite laws that were established for big corporate-sized companies. What Endaga wants to do is sell its boxes to locals who will run the network themselves, with help from services that Endaga provides for a fee.
The boxes that are now $6,000 are expected to cost less than $1,000 in the next five years. The assembly of the boxes is done in Oakland, Calif.; components come from various vendors, including radios from Range Networks.
The idea for Endaga came out of the TIER research group at the University of California at Berkeley. TIER is a foundational organization in the field of information and communication technology and development. Heimerl and his fellow co-founders, CTO Shaddi Hasan and VP of Engineering Kashif Ali, met there and were drawn to developing a new solution to the cellular access problem. Heimerl grew up in rural Alaska, where cellular access is often patchy at best, so he was all too aware of the pitfalls of no coverage.
Investors include Mitch Kapor, Meraki co-founder Sanjit Biswas, data scientist Jeff Hammerbacher, Emerging Frontiers and the Knight Foundation. With the funding, the company plans to take the Endaga solution to "hundreds of rural communities around the world," Heimerl wrote in a blog post. The hope is to have at least 100 boxes in the field by the end of next year.
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