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The system has had some hiccups, including poor reception in some of the community's outlying houses, occasional weather-related problems and momentary losses of Internet service. But it has generally worked well, and has proved so popular that the local assembly voted to impose a five-minute automatic cutoff to avoid saturating the lines.
"It's very convenient. The calls are good quality," said Alejandro Lopez Canseco, 21, a member of the town council.
The system was adopted following years of lobbying unsuccessfully for Mexican telecom companies to install cell service.
"They said our community was very small; they needed places with at least 5,000 inhabitants," resident Israel Hernandez said. "But in the mountains of Oaxaca, there aren't many communities of over 5,000."
Fed-up villagers held a traditional Indian assembly in March in Talea's town square, and residents voted to invest about 400,000 pesos ($30,000) of municipal money in the tiny phone system, most of it for the antenna and radio base station. The system links to the Internet through a local wireless provider, sort of like a cell phone version of Skype or magicJack.
One nonprofit group backing the system, Rhizomatica, says it could be a model for other isolated indigenous villages around the world, where some 700 million people lack affordable cell service.
"There have been a lot of communities that have been declared no-go zones by the companies, mainly because they can't make any money there. So the question is: How do you get these communities connected?" said Peter Bloom, a leader of Rhizomatica.
Many obstacles remain, including that large companies have bought up the rights to the best parts of the telecommunications spectrum. For the micro systems to work well, they often need to use part of the spectrum owned by somebody else.
"Some companies pay a lot of money for these licenses and they might feel threatened," said Kurtis Heimerl, who set up a similar village phone system in Indonesia this year.
But David Burgess, CEO of San Francisco-based Range Networks, which provided much of the technology for Talea's system, suggested large telecom companies could rent out unused bits of spectrum to towns, organizations or small operators who want to provide rural service. After all, regulators in many countries are pressuring telecom companies to provide more universal coverage in unserved regions.
"It gets the regulators off their back on universal service, it's a public relations move, it expands the network ," Burgess said. "It allows them to get some revenue ... and it adds a bunch of new subscribers and encourages economic development." (continued...)
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