BluPoint’s content hub offers curated online content offline that can be updated and can operate where there is little or no Internet

21 October 2016

Top Story

There have been several initiatives to deliver online content offline to local communities and the latest is BluPoint’s Mesh-Wi-Fi hub that is already getting promising results. Russell Southwood spoke to its founder, Mike Santer about how it works.

BluPoint is a social impact company that spun off from the UK’s University of Southampton. Its founder Mike Santer was doing a PhD on the adoption of local internet in Sub-Saharan Africa:”I was amazed at how much people were spending on phones in rural Africa. It was often up top 70% of their income….In South Africa, students told me they had to perform sexual favors to get Internet to do their studies.”

Out of these challenges Santer wanted to create something that would allow people curated online content offline that was free at the point of use and “without the restraints of the internet.” It is this basic idea that drives the company’s mission to “improve the lives of 20 million people in 20,000 communities by 2020. It enables people to access good quality education and entertainment content that has been curated and can shared within a community.”

The BluPoint Hub is able to transmit using Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and localized FM radio broadcasts and can be updated from the cloud using 3G, Ethernet or satellite. It’s a Mesh Wi-Fi box (which they build themselves) so once you have updated one hub, it can automatically update others nearby. The Mesh Wi-Fi units can be 0.5 kms apart and you can get up to 20 kms reach using shaped Wi-Fi:”If a unit gets moved, it will self-repair.”

The FM radio output can be used to turn website content into audio and can strip audio content out of videos. One hub can support 60 users and can be solar powered. Each box including systems integration cost around US$4,900. The footprint of the box bigger than an iPad, four inches deep and not very heavy.

It’s an early stage start-up that got a GBP0.5 million grant from a UK Government innovation fund called Innova and now has a team of 15 people working on the project. In this phase it is running what Santer describes as “four commercial pilots”:

  1. In South Africa in KZN with a school, health clinic and community centres with 36 units.
  1. In Tanzania in Morogoro in a location where there is no Internet or GSM coverage.
  1. In Kenya with Kenyatta University Workshops, a deal which is just being signed off.
  1. In the UK on a tourism site where there is no electricity.

Currently the pilots are getting thousands of page views per month, particularly in the schools context:”However there are limitations currently on users having their own devices.” In Darnell Scool, north of Durban, 30% of the 600 students are already using the content even though the hub has only just gone in.

“The hub can be loaded with any content the customer wants. For example, we’ve licensed all 4 seasons of MTV’s sexual reproduction drama Shuga and there are also radio shows, Kahn Academy materials, Wikipedia Schools and Fuse Schools (which provides excellent classroom based content.”

And streamed video?:”You can watch a movie with an old Nokia phone and it can run them on featurephones and deliver meaningful video...In Sierra Leone we put various Android apps on the hub that health workers needed and saved their data allowance.”

So who pays to make it free at the point of delivery? In the case of South Africa, it’s a Government agency (CSIR) and Dixons Carphone as sponsors and in Tanzania it’s Warwick in Africa, an NGO run out of Warwick University:”We want education authorities to put BluPoint hubs in schools.”

It’s also looking at creating a pay-for option with premium content but wants to retain the free data approach.

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