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Designing Sustainable Rural Infrastructure Through the Lens of OpenCellular

By Kashif Ali, Kurtis Heimerl

Communications of the ACM, Vol. 61 No. 8, Pages 22-25

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Rural areas are defined, in part, by their lack of infrastructure. In many parts of this column author Kurtis Heimerl's home state of Alaska, communities lack power infrastructure and learn to set up and use generators as a solution; in column author Kashif Ali's home country of Pakistan, filters are deployed to provide clean water in areas without a generalized potable source. Building sustainable infrastructure solutions for these types of places—which exist in some way in all countries with substantive rural areas—is a complex problem. While many (if not most) issues are not technical in nature (instead involving things like local buy-in), research has shown designing the technical portion of an intervention with a deep understanding of the local context is important to the success of the project.2 This understanding includes the capabilities, affordances, knowledge, and infrastructure available within a community; as well as the ability to leverage that understanding to build technologies that are inexpensive, robust, and understandable by rural users.

OpenCellular (OC),8 an initiative of the Telecom Infrastructure Project (TIP),10 is an open source hardware and software infrastructure platform that implements a cellular access point, either GSM or LTE. It was created to provide coverage to the hundreds of millions of people living in areas currently without cellular coverage and includes a variety of optimizations across hardware, software, and business models to better fit the needs and capabilities of these rural communities. OC's design leverages the extensive research literature on operating in rural areas as well as our personal experiences in places like Kenya, Indonesia,5 and the Philippines.1 In this column, we describe four important design choices in the context of the OpenCellular project: platform, power and networks, business models, and customizability. While the OC developers are still conducting their initial deployments and the eventual impact of the project is not known, we believe these designs are crucial to the long-term success of the platform.


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