Pangea launches Voice-To-Internet App in Nigeria for those who want Internet outside data coverage areas

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Every now and then something comes along that sounds so unlikely your first instinct is to check whether it’s April Fool’s day. American start-up Pangea has put together a service that allows Android smartphone users to call up the Internet using voice outside of data coverage areas. Russell Southwood spoke to its Director of Business Development Marco Scotti and one of its engineers Sebastian Presecan.

Pangea has launched an Android app in Nigeria recently in what Scotti describes as a “test phase” which is allowing a small number of people to use and test the app. It will go to a full launch soon. It plans to cover more African countries soon. The service has around 70,000 users in India so far, but Scotti said it is aiming for many more.

So let’s say you’re a Nigerian wanting to call up your Facebook page and there’s no wireless Internet connection available. When you click on your Facebook app, Pangea’s client detects the absence of Internet and intercepts the request.

It then, Presecan told me, “sends a bunch of SMSs” (via a toll free number) which sends a message to Pangea’s server in California. The server then translates the content request into soundwaves that is then sent as a phone call to your smartphone or any other Internet enabled device able to load apps in a text version.

Every time you want to send an email or check Twitter, it’ll make a quick (~10 seconds) call and transfer the requested data at up to 64 kilobits per second. Given the slow speeds, Pangea is only for text for now, but co-founder Vlad Iuhas says that down the road, it’ll offer the full Android experience, albeit a lot slower than most users in markets with data infrastructure are used to.

According to Presecan, “the big issue is the voice CODEX which tries to compress the data and is designed to lose some of it. So we might lose data we need and so we have to repair the sound wave in real time.”

Obviously there is an issue with latency as the SMS’s have to go to the server and it then has to translate the data into sound and then that sound has to be translated back into text. Presecan told me:”The latency is not very small. The phone call takes a few seconds. The SMS takes a few seconds and so on. But it is designed for areas where there is no connectivity. Some connectivity is better than no connectivity. It does not require other infrastructure (beyond a 2G voice connection).”

Scotti told me:”There is a bit of latency but it takes 20-30 secs to load a Google page which usually takes 5 seconds. That’s with the technology now but it will improve over time. We have to review the sites that can be reached and will do that with the next funding round. We want to make web sites load with less megabytes.”

So how did the idea for the technology come about? Presecan says:”If you can send a fax over wireline, why not over GSM. It supports it.” So they created a system of sound waves capable of sending web pages of text.”

Scotti gives me the standard ICT4D pitch:”There’s a lack of connectivity in the world. Only one third of the world’s population are connected. This is bad both from a social and economic perspective. We think we’ve solved this problem and removed some major barriers. Firstly, it overcomes the lack of connectivity in rural areas. Secondly, it works for people who are not able to afford data plans. Only voice signal readiness is required (2G) and those signals cover a very large part of Nigeria’s population.”

The business model is currently evolving but has two parts to it. Firstly, it wants to create social impact (something its initial investors are happy with) and grow the number of users to 0.5-1 million and then “grow the value of the company based on that. Secondly, it wants to partner in country with those running e-commerce apps, integrate Pangea into the the app and charge a small fee for every product sold by us.”

So to summarise if you have an Android smartphone and you’re in a 2G voice only coverage area, you can get very slow, mainly text access only access to the Internet. Even with absolutely the lowest priced smartphones, it’s not clear to me how this helps the unconnected connect. Just having an app may not be enough. It could be that my imagination is failing me here. But if it’s a way of being able to demonstrate that there’s actually data demand out there in 2G coverage areas, bring it on.


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