VoIP on a bike

A bicycle-powered, Linux-based VoIP system brings developing communities into the 21st century

A bicycle-powered, Linux-based VoIP system: not your usual high-tech architecture. But what if you were one of the more than 1 billion people living without electricity? No power, no phone.

The mission of Inveneo, a nonprofit group of inveterate high-tech adventurers, is to bring developing communities that never reached a 20th century level of infrastructure into the 21st century. Its bicycle-powered system brings not just VoIP but also e-mail and Web browsing to remote areas, using a combination of Linux and the Asterisk open source PBX.

Inveneo puts everything together with off-the-shelf hardware that is low-cost, easily replaced, and — it is hoped — easy to troubleshoot and fix. It uses Wi-Fi networking to route traffic to a central hub with existing phone infrastructure, with a range as far as 100 miles.

The bicycle, mostly used as a backup to solar power, gives the rider one hour on the phone for every 15 minutes of work. In a village, a user might trade pedaling time for phone time — or get paid by someone who wants to use the phone but doesn’t want to work so hard.

When, at a meeting with Inveneo, I suggested that instead of spending hundreds of millions of dollars to hit a comet 83 million miles away, the U.S. government should support efforts such as Inveneo’s here on Earth, developer Michael Meisel took umbrage. He pointed out that if we didn’t pay for high-tech research none of the equipment Inveneo is using would exist.

Instead, according to Inveneo CEO Mark Summer, the goal is to get NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) such as ActionAid interested. Inveneo might have an impact on 10 villages, but ActionAid can fund and deploy communications systems to thousands of villages. In addition, Inveneo is working with Cisco to bring what it calls ICT (infrastructure and communications technology) to a half-million schools in Africa.

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By connecting remote areas of the world, Inveneo’s efforts will help to improve the health, education, and business opportunities of millions of people. For companies such as Cisco, that’s a smart investment; because when these 1 billion to 2 billion people become connected, they will in short order become consumers.

It is estimated that in 10 years, the combined populations of what we call developing nations will make up 70 percent of the consumers in the world. It wouldn’t be a bad idea if those consumers were familiar with your products and services.

If you are interested in what Inveneo is doing, I suggest you look around its site. I’m sure it will be worth your while in the not-too-distant future.

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