The town that Carlos Slim forgot

Posted by Tim Johnson on July 28, 2013 

A town high in the mountains of Oaxaca state now has a mobile phone network – but it's not because of Carlos Slim's Telcel or any other cellular service provider.

The townspeople built their own network with the help of some foreigners, and now their cellular bills are about $1.20 a month, a thirteenth the size of average monthly bills in places where the big players offer service.

The town is called Villa Talea de Castro. Most of its inhabitants are Zapotec Indians.

It's so remote that there was no cell service. In stepped Rhizomatica, a nonprofit with the goal of increasing “access to mobile telecommunications to the over two billion people without affordable coverage and the 700 million with none at all.”

The U.S. and European experts working with Mexican engineers got the network set up by March of this year. At first, they ruled that phone calls were not to be longer than five minutes each to keep the small network from getting saturated.

By May, local numbers in Mexico City, Los Angeles and Seattle were set up, meaning that Oaxacans in Villa Talea could call relatives in the capital or in California as if it were practically a local call, a few cents a minute.

The French news agency, AFP, just did a story about the project (in English), and here's an earlier story in Spanish from a Mexican news portal.

AFP says Slim's Telcel, whose parent company, America Movil, has 262 million subscribers across Latin America, refused to provide service in the town because it had fewer than 5,000 inhabitants.

The local network appears to be quite a success. AFP says “600 villagers signed up since the service opened three months ago.” Already, the Red Celular de Talea (or Talea Cellular Network) is preparing to buy better equipment to improve service and donate their old equipment to another indigenous village.

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