VoIP in the wilderness

A wireless internet network brings VoIP services to rural Nigeria

John Dada

With no fixed-line service and mobile phone operators reluctant to invest in rural areas, the Fantsuam Foundation decided to provide VoIP to customers on its wireless network in northern Nigeria.

The Fantsuam Foundation became involved in the telecommunications business almost by accident. The not-for-profit NGO started by providing small loans to women farmers in the area around the town of Kafanchan, in north central Nigeria. But their microfinance scheme proved so successful that the organization quickly needed a computer to keep track of all the payments. Customers were curious about how the new computers worked and started asking for training courses. The courses proved to be extremely popular, and to further develop the trainees’ skills Fantsuam decided to install a satellite internet connection in 2002.

‘We felt very isolated as a rural community,’ says John Dada, programme director at the Fantsuam Foundation. ‘We needed to communicate with the rest of the world, so we invested in a VSAT (very small aperture terminal) satellite internet system. But in order to pay for the system we had to find a way to share the bandwidth.’

Over the last few years Fantsuam has developed a wireless internet system, broadcasting their internet signal to communities up to 15 km away from their base, and covering a population of more than 100,000 people. Customers on the network, called ZittNet, now includes local education institutions, banks, hotels and guest houses. A nearby hospital and several clinics are also connected, opening up the possibility for them to access telemedicine facilities.

The VSAT internet signal is broadcast by a high-gain radio antenna, attached to the top of a 45-metre mast. Anyone living within sight of the mast can connect to the network via a receiver. But the organization discovered that their customers would rather have access to a phone service than to the internet. Mobile phone companies, however, are reluctant to invest in rural areas, so Fantsuam decided to introduce a VoIP (voice over internet protocol) service to its customers. Working together with the Africa Wireless alliance, the foundation supplies a simple plug-and-play system, also called ‘VoIP in a box’. Users plug the device, which costs around US$50, into their computer and connect to the network. They then use a telephone handset to dial the number and make calls.

A good mix

ZittNet customers can call each other for free, and this has proven to be a powerful incentive for individuals and businesses to sign up to the network. Also, with pre-paid vouchers from a local mobile phone company, users can connect to mobile and fixed-line phone networks with the same VoIP system. These calls cost the same as any other mobile phone call.

‘We are encouraging our VoIP customers to use the service as a kind of micro-business and allow anyone to use the system for a small fee,’ says Dada. ‘Having more phone access points means that people don’t have to travel so far to make a call, they can just go to the nearest business or home with a connection to the network.’

Most people use the service to call family members, or for health and educational information. Increasingly, many farmers are using the system to obtain market information. This is especially important during the harvest season when farmers want to find out the latest prices and where the best place is to sell their produce.

We are looking at how we can bring the costs down,’ adds Dada. ‘We are working with the Nigerian government to introduce inexpensive technology and subsidize the cost of the bandwidth. The government also has plans to bring broadband cable internet to the area in the near future, which would also help to reduce costs and provide an improved service to more people.’

The Nigerian government is looking for private sector investment and more organizations like Fantsuam to build wireless internet systems for rural areas. ‘Our system is being used as a model to see if it could be replicated throughout the country, where small wireless networks would become like wholesalers of bandwidth. The fact that we already have the infrastructure in place makes our project very interesting for the government to invest in sooner, rather than later.’

Although Fantsuam’s microfinance activities supported the development of ZittNet, the organization’s ICT work is now starting to pay for itself. Since those early days of providing loans, Fantsuam now gives training courses on basic computer literacy, computer networking and maintenance, to build and improve the skills of people in the community. Many trainees have gone on to start their own businesses, taking advantage of Fantsuam’s microfinance scheme. The combination of loans and ICTs works perfectly, says Dada.

‘Reinvesting the profits back into projects to develop ICT skills and small businesses has given a real boost to the local economy and has given communities access to communication and information services they otherwise would not have had.’

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John Dada is programme director of the Fantsuam Foundation.

Related resources

Wireless Africa helps to develop business models that support community-owned wireless networks.

30 September 2008

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