Village Telco: A WiFi-based mesh network that offers voice and data services anywhere

There is a thriving network of ventures on the VC4Africa website. From these exciting businesses we make a selection and we approach the entrepreneurs behind the project for an interview. Today we meet South African entrepreneur Steve Song, the man behind Village Telco.

How did the idea for Village Telco come about?

“The idea for Village Telco was came out of a meeting, supported by the Shuttleworth Foundation, of WiFi hackers who saw the potential of unlicensed WiFi technologies to delivery affordable rural access in Africa. WiFi wireless mesh networks have sprung up in Europe and in North America but in Africa we saw the need to offer voice as well data services to be able to serve those communities where Internet use was low or non-existant. Thus Village Telco was born, a WiFi-based wireless mesh network that offers voice and data services anywhere.”

Your main product is the Mesh Potato? What is it and where does this name come from?

“In thinking through the Village Telco we wanted the technology for the end-user needed to be affordable, reliable, and simple to use. Unfortunately existing WiFi networking technologies did not offer an easy integration of voice and data. We wanted users to be able to simply plug in an ordinary phone and start making calls.

In order to do that we actually needed two pieces of technology: a WiFi access point (AP) and an Analogue Telephony Adaptor (ATA), which translates a call from an ordinary phone into Voice over Internet (VoIP) traffic suitable for a wireless data network. No device like this existed.

It was a watershed moment for us going from the idea of re-purposing commodity WiFi technologies designed for North American and European markets to designing our own. We have never looked back. And thus the Mesh Potato was born, a mash-up of a wireless AP and an ATA. Put simply, the Mesh Potato is a device that instantly forms a wireless cloud with its sibling devices and allows you to make local phone calls literally out of the box.

By creating our own design, we were able to not just combine the right technologies but also adapt them for demanding conditions. The Mesh Potato is one tough cookie. It can withstand line spikes, brownouts, power surges, just about anything short of a direct lightning strike.  It’s flexible, able to accept anything between 10 and 40 Volts, making it ideal for alternative power solutions. And it consumes only 3 Watts in full operation, making solar power a relatively low-cost alternative.

The name Mesh Potato is a bit geeky. The ‘Mesh’ part obviously comes from mesh networks but Potato came from a mash-up of POTS, which is a telephone company acronym for a regular phone and Analogue Telephony Adaptor (ATA). POT + ATA gave us Potata which is about half way between the English and Spanish words for potato. Like I said… a bit geeky but the name turned out to be quite sticky.  Mesh Potato is a lot easier to remember than the typical tech model number such as XY-123BS.

In the last year we’ve sold about 1500 units and have just received a shipment of 1500 more. Mesh Potatoes are currently priced USD119 each with discounts of up to 40% for quantity. We’re in the midst of planning our second generation of the Mesh Potato for production later this year. The new generation will be roughly twice as powerful and half the price thanks to the rapidly evolution of WiFi technologies.”

Which countries are you targeting now and why?

“Our target countries are those with a combination of low telecommunication infrastructure penetration and high market prices for telecoms.”

What are your main challenges concerning Village Telco?

“A big challenge for Village Telco is bootstrapping a global supply chain. We’ve done well for a small start-up and for the first generation of our technolgoy, but we have some critical changes to make to bring manufacturing and distribution costs down to be competitive in the wireless market. We also need to go further in commoditising the technology. I think we’ve done a great job with the Mesh Potato so far but we’re now working on integrated solutions for specfic markets.”

How is this initiative funded until now?

“The development of the concept and the initial production cycle were made possible through a fellowship that I held at the Shuttleworth Foundation. I left the Foundation in February 2011 and in August 2011 a Boston-based investor called Invested Development have enrolled us in their Beta Program, which is a seed investment initiative providing support for product development and market research. They’ve been a great partner so far.”

Have you been following the ICT4D/ICT4$ debate? What is your position in this discussion and why?

“I have spent a number of years in the world of development and philanthropy. Giving away money is easy but measuring the sustainability and impact of philanthropic initiatives is notoriously difficult. Philanthropy has a critically important role to play in some sectors but in the world of information and communication technologies, it is hard to beat the market as an arbiter of value. Mobile phone companies have shown us that people will pay for what they value. I see no reason why most ICT initiatives should not be market driven.”

How can people contact you?

They can e-mail me via steve [at], find me on Twitter, Skype (steve_l_song) or via my VC4Africa profile and our website.”