Connecting the unconnected, banking the unbanked
World Mobile and IOHK seek to disrupt the global telecommunications market
11 August 2021 6 mins read
Since the pay-as-you-go boom of the late 1990s, mobile phone use has grown sharply. Yet, half of the world’s population remains unconnected. That’s nearly four billion people, most of whom live in disadvantaged or remote areas.
There are many reasons why people may not be able to gain access to a mobile network. Lack of infrastructure is the main cause because network providers see little money to be made from building mobile masts in inaccessible regions. So, until they do, many of the most economically challenged people will remain at a disadvantage.
World Mobile Chain (WMC) intends to level the playing field. Founded in London, 2018, World Mobile is the first global network built on blockchain technology. Its mission is to create a sharing economy, aimed at delivering connectivity to remote communities around the world. The company has recently begun a partnership with IOHK.
I went to find a partner, I looked around and couldn’t find anybody who was serious, except for Charles Hoskinson and IOHK, nobody had the same level of dedication. Together, we can connect the unconnected and bank the unbanked – says World Mobile Chain, CEO Micky Watkins.
Venturing where demand is highest
There are thousands of international mobile network operators. As it stands, these network operators run on legacy infrastructure, leasing cell towers, and then selling their products like airtime minutes. All of this operates on highly congested frequency bands, such as 3G, 4G and 5G. However, these operators cater only for people who are already connected, because they wrongly believe that this is where the money rests.
World Mobile differs in its approach by going where the needs of individual people are highest. Usually, this means venturing to the remotest regions. The company bypasses the congested frequencies and uses other parts of the wireless spectrum, such as TV white space and Citizens Broadband Radio Service, or free-space optics, where data is transmitted through the air using lasers. In fact, the company is already collaborating with Google in Kenya on free-space optics, “a technology capable of transferring data at 20 Gbits/s over a distance of 12km,” says Watkins. By avoiding the licensed wavelengths, World Mobile can provide connectivity at a fraction of the usual cost. Watkins continues, “the inspiration for the venture was the sheer shock of learning about four billion people not having access to a mobile network.”
Google, Microsoft, and Facebook had been trying to find solutions, but had fallen short. Watkins had already been connecting people for 15 years (using microwave technologies), when WMC was born. The fact that $64 billion a year is spent on telecommunications in Africa, and 80% of the one billion Sub-Saharan population is unconnected, the potential for WMC to disrupt the industry is staggering, both in social and economic terms.
Connectivity at a remarkably low cost
The plan is to make it viable for people in remote areas to host ‘air nodes’. These consist of poles with solar panels that are linked to a wireless access point, then connected to WMC using tiny and affordable Raspberry Pi computers. Each node costs less than $5,000, far less than other methods. These devices are system agnostic, and will allow villagers in remote regions of Africa to access the telecommunications market. Connectivity could offer a viable option to making a living through farming or trade. This is a multi-stage project that will be developed following feasibility studies. However, if everything goes to plan, the first communications-based sharing economy should be possible within three years.
WMC will test the process in Zanzibar, which will see 100,000 to 150,000 people brought onto the network. Once on board, people will take ownership and begin earning from the network. Once the process is perfected in Zanzibar, it will be rolled out in Tanzania. With a potential market of 20 million people in 13,000 villages, WMC estimates that its existing team could roll the project out to 600 villages a month. Getting just 15% of these villages to host nodes would enable them to earn a substantial income, in a manner that just wasn’t previously possible.
Much has been said about the economic potential of the people of Africa. However, an area where the continent might end up leading the way is data security. Existing mobile networks know almost everything about us with our texts, photos, even our calls not really being our own. Data has become currency, with privacy being something we surrender upon signing up with a mobile operator network. However, WMC aims to alter this status quo by incorporating a privacy element into the equation. In the future, people in developed countries may well grow to envy the self-sovereignty of those in the developing world.
So where does IOHK come in?
It’s a bold vision requiring a fresh approach. The incorporation of blockchain WMC looked at IOHK, a business with an established presence on the African continent, as well as a shared passion for fairness and inclusiveness. A partnership seemed to make sense. Micky expects that by using Cardano in order to provide people with a digital identity, WMC will be able to bring their vision into reality.
Creating a financial system for emerging markets is no easy task. However, with IOHK providing a decentralized ledger and WMC acting as a bridge to the new market, inclusive, blockchain-based connectivity is one step closer. Disrupting the global telecommunications market is not something that can be done alone or overnight, and it’s not all about money. The new markets will be the markets that no one else can reach, but with a joint team of tech and industry-savvy individuals, the next few years will witness an unprecedented global transformation, both in finance and telecommunications.
Charles Hoskinson, Cardano and IOHK all see one thing in common, creating a new financial system for the emerging world markets,” adds Watkins. IOHK has done everything they can possibly do, on a peer-to-peer level, and on a scientific level to create the software to do that.