Steve Song & Village Telco: A Foundation in Telecoms

by Chris McGivern & SF Team, 26 December 2018

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Created by Steve Song

Steve Song joined the Shuttleworth Foundation in 2007 as Telecommunications Fellow, tasked with looking at ways of driving down the high cost of communications infrastructure in South Africa. At a time when the use of mobile phones was exploding worldwide, the lack of affordable access to voice and data services in rural Africa meant many being left behind, with social and economic growth and innovation suffering as a result.

Steve’s project developed into the Village Telco initiative, using open source software and low cost wireless mesh technology to build affordable community telephone networks, without the need for mobile phone towers or landlines.

Village Telco remained an ongoing commercial concern until 2017, but our investment in Steve continues to provide a social return to this day. He is a Fellow at Mozilla, a research associate with the Network Startup Resource Center, and a hugely influential figure in the global telecoms space.

Now working at a policy and regulatory level, Steve continues to pursue his goals of creating and enabling environments for community networks and small scale operators.

Steve’s work - and his commitment to making it freely and openly available - also laid the foundations built on by future work in telecoms by Shuttleworth Fellows Paul Gardner-Stephen, Peter Bloom and Luka Mustafa. We caught up with him to look back over his memories of that time and his work since - below is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Shuttleworth Foundation: Hi Steve, thanks for talking with us. Could you tell us a little about your background and the inspiration for your career?

Steve Song: Well, I moved to South Africa in 1991 to join Mass Democratic Movement, and got involved with a communications NGO called SANGONeT. They were using FidoNet connectivity which enabled groups in South Africa to communicate with the outside world via email.

That was a profound revelation for me. The apartheid government censored all mail going out of the country, but they had no idea about email. It empowered relatively tiny organisations to communicate globally.

It inspired me. I thought communication like that could be a great leveller. And with the invention of the world wide web in 1993, that potential promised to multiply.

I’ve been involved in trying to make the internet cheaper and more pervasive since - mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa, but not exclusively.

What led you to the Shuttleworth Foundation?

I was working for a Canadian research agency - the International Development Research Centre - when I met Jason Hudson at a workshop in London.

The IDRC were funding a wireless technology project teaching people to build their own wireless communication networks, so we talked.

A few months after, he emailed me and said: “We have this new Fellowship programme and we’re looking for Fellows to pursue some issues and work on telecommunications - do you know anyone?”

I thought about it for a couple of seconds and said: “Well, as it happens…yes, I do.”

Just like that?

Well, it was very fortunate for me. I was originally hired by the IDRC to do hands-on work, exploring the fringes of the Internet in Africa and it was very exciting.

But I was a victim of my success and promoted far enough up the management ladder to the point where I no longer had any engagement with real access issues.

I was managing a team who were funding other people doing the frontline work. It seemed the Fellowship might be a way to get back to the coal face.

Even so, that must have been a risk…

In a way, ensconced as I was in my cosy office job, it was difficult to leave. The IDRC is a Crown corporation in Canada and has a good salary and good pension. It’s a very secure organisation.

I had no idea what it was going to turn into and at the time I thought it might be just be a one or two year sabbatical from my current work.

And I didn’t realise the Fellowship was going to lead to the dramatic career shift that it did.

One of the things I’m most grateful for is that the Foundation created space and time for me time for me to assert myself as an independent, individual force and to build the confidence to pursue something on my own. And, indeed, to pursue a startup.

That startup was Village Telco, which you established in the Fellowship…

My role in the Foundation was to work on solving the barrier of expensive communication, mostly focussed on South Africa, although it extended out into the region over time.

In 2008, it was impossible to become a telecoms operator in South Africa. It was a developmental state and they determined what connected everyone.

The only way around that was to use a license-exempt spectrum or WiFi. The problem was that WiFi is good for data, not for voice services and, at the time, there was greater demand for voice services than data services in rural areas.

Also, to connect an ordinary phone to a WiFi device you need an analogue telephony adaptor, which translates an ordinary phone signal into digital signal that can be understood on the Internet. Assembling all those bits and pieces together is expensive and time consuming, and it seemed unlikely anyone would ever do it in any sort of scale.

So, I organised a couple of workshops looking at the potential of WiFi and how it might be adapted. One of them was attended by a brilliant engineer from Australia called David Rowe. He said he’d been designing devices not entirely dissimilar, and thought we could build something.

The birth of the Mesh Potato?

The name has a geeky origin. The acronym for an ordinary phone is POTS - ‘plain old telephone service’. And an Analogue Telephony Adaptor is an ATA. We had a Spaniard at the workshop who put the two acronyms together and came up with POT-ATA, very close to the Spanish word for potato.

We were connecting the devices in a mesh, which is a P2P network for WiFi devices, so the name Mesh Potato was born. It was a little geeky, but too irresistible to give up.

Anyway, that began a two-year process of contracting the design of these devices with a manufacturer in China, and bringing them to market. We sold them to entrepreneurs who wanted to build networks in places where access didn’t exist.

They were building local communication networks and in some cases connecting remote communities. Some were using them in scenarios we hadn’t imagined - in industrial estates or groups of holiday cottages with no phone system connecting them.

The principal deployments were peri-urban areas where access was either unavailable or unaffordable. Or, in “notspot’ areas where there is a mobile signal but you’re in a valley, or not covered by service.

And how did you find the Fellowship on a personal level?

There are a few things I took from it. The flexibility of the Shuttleworth Foundation in terms of the amount of slack they give the Fellows and the lengths they go to empower them is pretty amazing.

If the freedom to pursue your dreams is a kind of metric, it is one of the top Fellowships out there. I think it’s one of the best-kept secrets in the world.

The other thing is the peer community that has emerged over time. They have done a better job than any other organisation I know of in terms of cultivating the community and support group around the Fellows. And not just among the active Fellows, but also among the Alumni…I think they have been quite ingenious.

How did things go once your Fellowship ended?

When you leave the Foundation, it gives you two options. If you want to build an institution out of your project, you can build a non-profit or a for-profit.

I chose the latter. Not because I expected to grow very wealthy out of it - although I wasn’t fundamentally opposed to that idea - but because it was important for me to have as much skin in the game as my customers.

If I was convincing people in poor areas to buy this technology, it was fundamental to take these financial and career risks with them. In retrospect, it was still the right decision to make. Although I learned some important lessons about startups, which made the decision a little more complicated than I thought at the time.

What sort of complications?

I had made a commitment to make Village Telco an open hardware and open software initiative, so anyone could download the schematic and download the software and manufacture their own devices.

But as a commercial startup, I discovered one of the principal concerns of investors and venture capitalists is how they might extract their equity should things go south. The most common method is to sequester the Intellectual Property (IP).

But because I was giving away the IP, that’s a tough conversation to have, especially when talking to investors for whom profit is the primary motivator.

For social enterprises with a profit and social mission, there is a class that call themselves ‘impact investors.’ But it’s still tricky. They operate as a kind of Janus-style organisation where one minute their concern is the social mission and the next they want to extract value. It’s a difficult balance to strike. I still think it’s a good idea, but my experience of them is pretty mixed.

What was the outcome for Village Telco?

I carried on on my own and it was alive in practical terms until 2017. Although we weren’t selling huge amounts, we were still manufacturing and producing new designs.

All in all we sold couple of generations of the technology we produced - a little over 7000 units. Which is a fatal number. It’s enough to maintain interest but it’s not enough to be a going concern as a business. In some ways it would have been better had we sold less.

The Mesh Potato was picked up by a BBC programme early last year [2017]. It was used to wire up a rural village in Wales, which would have been amazing had it happened three years previously. But by that stage, Village Telco was starting to wind down.

C’est la vie. Timing is everything.

What other lessons did you learn that could advise or inspire others in the field?

Hardware manufacturing of a commodity device is difficult. Your competition is achieving economies of scale by producing tens of thousands of units and you are producing hundreds. The odds are a bit stacked against you.

I think it is possible to do, but you have to have a unique product. We did - for quite some time. But another thing I failed to appreciate was that hardware manufacturing is just like software. The minute you produce your first version, you need to be thinking and investing in the production of your next generation, because the market doesn’t stand still.

With software, that’s just a practical reality but with hardware it takes deep pockets to commit. Each time you engage in the design of a new piece of hardware, there is prototyping phase, beta production runs and full production - all of that is a substantial amount of money.

These were hard lessons learned about what hardware manufacturing is in the modern age. That said, it is possible. What was miraculous to me was we created a completely unique device and brought it to market.

We’re looking back at the last ten years of the Fellowship model and while Village Telco didn’t prove sustainable, your work has a legacy.

I feel great about people building on my work. One of the Fellows - Peter Bloom - I found him. I gave him a flash grant of $5000 - as we are all empowered to do - and encouraged him to apply.

I was extremely chuffed when he got it and we still collaborate today. I’m on the board of his organisation, Rhizomatica, and we work together on an almost daily basis. I’m just sorry there aren’t more Fellows who are in the telecoms space.

Luka Mustafa’s’ project was an open hardware/optical hardware communications medium, and more of an interesting science project than practical tool for comms, only because it was incredibly short range. His genius is in open hardware manufacturing and his skills in 3D printing and hardware design have led to amazing collaborations, most noticeably with Alasdair Davies and the Arribada initiative.

I think that’s incredible. To the Foundation’s credit, they are explicit about backing the Fellow as opposed to the project. Luka may have started in telecoms, but I think - and I’m not 100 percent sure he would agree with my assessment - he found his sweet spot somewhere else.

What’s next for you?

For the time being, the Fellowship has taken me more into policy and regulatory work. I’m trying to help create a more enabling environment for small scale operators and community networks.

Right now, it is extremely limited and unsympathetic to small scale operators. There is an emphasis on technology and business models, but not enough focus on creating and enabling an environment to apply these technologies in remote, sparsely populated areas.

That’s where my efforts are at the moment, and I also spend half my time on a Fellowship at the Mozilla Foundation.

Thanks for your time, Steve. Any final words?

There’s only one point I want to leave you with. The Fellowship changed my life. Had it not been for the Shuttleworth Foundation I would have probably carried on being a well paid science bureaucrat and I wouldn’t have found the space or the courage to leap out into the unknown.

The Foundation gave me the space to take a deep breath and do it. While my job stability and pension are in far more doubt now than they were ten years ago, I love the work I do. I feel deeply satisfied by my work and I have the Foundation to thank for that.

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