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Endaga Brings Rural Villages Online With a Cell Network in a Box

It may not be legal, but it's working.

Endaga

Did you know you can fit a whole cellphone network in a box the size of a small carry-on suitcase? That’s what a tiny startup called Endaga is doing, to bring mobile phone services to remote villages in Indonesia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Philippines. It may not be legal, but it’s working.

Endaga, based out of Oakland, Calif., sells its boxes for $6,000. Local operators use them to connect to backhaul, or underlying wired or wireless networks — in Indonesia, it’s satellite Internet; in Pakistan, long-distance Wi-Fi — then install the boxes on trees, set their pricing and hand out SIM cards. Customers bring their own regular phones. They don’t need to invest in expensive satellite phones.

In a 1,500-person town in Papua, where the very first box was installed in February 2013, the school with the box is bringing in $2,000 in revenue per month, with 400 subscribers.

The school is now having an easier time retaining teachers, in part because they’re able to communicate with friends and family back home without driving four hours to get cellphone reception. Two-thirds of texts and calls are outbound.

And the Papua service is mostly reliable, except for when it went down for a week when a typhoon hit the satellite backhaul.

Endaga, which came out of rural cellular access research at UC Berkeley, has now raised $1.2 million from investors including Mitch Kapor, Jeff Hammerbacher, the founders of wireless networking company Meraki and the Knight Foundation.

The company’s approach to bringing service to remote areas using a standard called OpenBTS is similar to that of Range Networks, which provides systems in places like Antarctica. Range is also where Endaga co-founder and CEO Kurtis Heimerl worked for more than two years. However, Heimerl said Endaga’s approach is much more focused on a simple setup for non-techie users.

Endaga should be a complement to Google’s and Facebook’s efforts to bring the rest of the world online, said Heimerl.

“Google Loon, Facebook drones — these are all five-year-long plays to get backhaul into these areas,” he said. “But then you have the same problem: Last-step access.”

If and when those high-profile experimental networks come online, Endaga boxes can use them to provide more and better networks, Heimerl said.

But for now, what Endaga is doing is illegal. It doesn’t have commercial licenses to the spectrum it uses.

Heimerl is convinced that outdated regulations will change. He said he has heard stories about local police protecting the boxes because they have become such a valuable community asset.

“It’s a huge market and huge opportunity, but we’re really at the edge of what regulations have to change,” Heimerl said. “These regulations were written in an era when the only people who could run a cellphone network were huge national-scale telecoms.”

Heimerl admitted that being illegal isn’t ideal. “There will be a lot of hiccups with something this early, but we’re hoping to sell 100 boxes by the end of next year.”

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

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