The communications revolution that swept the globe missed the Zapotec village of Talea de Castro high in the mountains of southern Mexico, where making any sort of call meant trudging to a community telephone line and paying what could be a day's wages for a crackly five-minute conversation.
All that has changed, thanks to an ingenious plan that backers hope can bring connections to thousands of other small, isolated villages around the world.
Using simple radio receivers, a laptop and relatively inexpensive Internet technologies, the people of the village have leapfrogged into the 21st century by setting up what amounts to their own mini-telecom company -- one capable of handling 11 cell phone calls at a time at a small fraction of what they used to pay.
"This has been a project that has really worked in keeping people in touch. Before, people couldn't talk much because it cost so much," said Keyla Ramirez Cruz, a Talea resident who anchors a program on the community radio station and coordinates the new phone system.
Before it was set up, Talea's 2,500 residents would make their calls from the "caseta," a house or shop that has a land line and charges a per-minute fee. There was little privacy, and international calls cost more than a dollar a minute. It was even worse for incoming calls, which required a runner to answer and tell townsfolk when someone was looking for them.
Now, hardly anyone in Talea uses the caseta.
In just six months, more than 720 residents have signed up to use the new system. Local calls made on off-the-shelf cell phones are free, and phoning relatives in Los Angeles costs just 20 centavos (1.5 cents) a minute. What's more, every subscriber has a distinct mobile number.
The system uses a small antenna to capture calls with a software -controlled base radio, essentially a generic radio set that can operate more cheaply and simply and use less power because the software is now doing most of the work. Free and open-source software replace complex proprietary cell phone systems to receive, route and bill calls. Those programs are also designed to easily interface with Internet-based services such as Skype, linking the system to the outside world. (continued...)
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