NON-PROFIT CYCLES WIFI AND VOIP INTO THIRD WORLD PHONES
After the tech bust, Mark Summer burned out on working in the technology industry. But he didn't give up on the hope that the networking technology he had helped develop could improve the lives of people around the world.
So he got together with his friend Bob Marsh, a founding member of the Homebrew Computer Club that gave rise to Apple Computer, and started a non-profit in San Francisco. Now the non-profit, dubbed Inveneo, has created a product that could bring Internet telephony to remote places around the world.
In essence, Inveneo created a phone that uses a stationary bicycle to generate electricity and a wireless Internet radio that enables people to make voice-over-the-Internet (VoIP) phone calls from remote villages in Uganda.
``I wanted to get out of the cubicle world,'' said Summer, 35. ``It was a good time for me to transition to something that makes an impact in our field.''
Summer had been chief technology officer of IT Deliver, now known as InfiniRoute Networks, a VoIP technology company. A German who came to the United States in 1998, he had lived for a couple of years in Southeast Asia and understood the need for cheap communications.
In 2002, he started working on the problem of how to bring communications to places without power or phone lines. He was joined by others, such as telecom refugee Kristin Peterson, who had a marketing background. A year ago, he and his founding team pitched in the money to create the non-profit. They call their creation a ``solar and pedal-powered communications network.''
They picked Uganda as a test bed. There, about 85 percent of the population has no phone, and 95 percent has no power. People would walk 12 miles to find a phone kiosk where they could pay to make a phone call.
The VoIP bicycle works like this: Someone sits on the bike and pedals to generate power. That drives power for the low-power computer. A regular telephone handset is connected to a circuit board that plugs into the computer. A caller can use the phone to place a call over a wireless Internet connection using the 802.11b WiFi radio standard.
Since the bike has a directional antenna with a range of 7.2 miles, the call can be carried that distance until it hits another antenna. That antenna transmits the call another 7 miles and so on. So the VoIP bike and its network of antennas can actually extend the range of the phone to 62 miles. Once it reaches a given destination, Inveneo can switch the call into the regular phone network, and direct it to any phone worldwide.
The wireless technology provides bandwidth of 1 megabit a second, or enough to carry 15 simultaneous phone conversations with decent quality. The bike has a solar panel for the day time, but pedal power can supply electricity at night. Hence, the bikes can provide 24-hour-a-day phone service, given enough pedalers. Each bike can be set up for a cost of about $2,000.
Inveneo has been working with non-governmental aid groups, such as the United Kingdom-based Action Aid, to set up a network of the VoIP bikes in Uganda. So far, about five villages have been set up with the VoIP phone service, and the plan is to expand it to 25 more villages.
``We could have volunteered for the Peace Corps, but we wanted to make an impact,'' Summer said. ``So we're training the aid groups. We create the technology and package it so they can easily maintain it.''
So far, Inveneo has operated on the funds of its founders. But the group is trying to raise USD300,000 to take its efforts to the next level, creating as many as 10 more projects in other parts of Africa or Asia in the next year. The group's web site is www.inveneo.org.