by Matt Villano

VoIP and Wi-Fi Where There Are No Telephones

Mar 01, 20062 mins

Bringing technology to emerging markets.

What do you get when you cross a laptop with a bicycle? Mobile Internet.No joke. The nonprofit company Inveneo has developed a low-energy, Linux-based computer that is powered by bicycle and solar energy. The technology was designed to bring Internet and voice over IP (VoIP) to poor villages in rural areas of Africa and Asia.

In 2003, Inveneo cofounders Mark Summer and Robert Marsh developed a wireless system for villagers in rural Laos while volunteering for a nongovernmental organization there. The duo wanted to use this technology to bring local, national and international dialing to other remote areas. Last year, they teamed up with a group named ActionAid and began working with villages in western Uganda, where the nearest phone is a three- or four-kilometer walk.

Already, the team has installed computer stations in four isolated villages in the Bukuuku region of Uganda, serving a total of nearly 3,200 villagers. Each computer is wired to an analog telephone and a Wi-Fi antenna, which transmits the Internet signal to a central hub at one of the villages. The Inveneo system costs $1,995, according to Summer. It comes with 80-watt solar panels and an optional bicycle-powered generator that can provide power when there isn’t any sunlight.

Some farmers are using VoIP to call friends in larger cities and obtain market prices for produce before deciding whether the trek to town is worth it, says Kristin Peterson, Inveneo’s chief marketing officer.

The technology has attracted attention from big-name IT companies such as Intel and Wyse Technologies. Peterson says Inveneo will use support and nonmonetary contributions from these companies to expand its work to other parts of the world. Next on the company’s list: Other regions of Uganda, as well as additional countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.