The Innovators: Rugged Communications and The Last Digital Mile

by Kristen Sissener, @kristensissener of @PairedAir.

In development we often hear discussions about the challenges of so-called “last mile” delivery. We mostly associate these challenges with the delivery of medications, supplies and other tangible items. But what if the goods in question are digital rather than material? What if what we need to deliver in that last mile is simple communication?

As we publish this inaugural post for our new series “The Innovators”, it’s only fitting that we kick off with an innovator working to address the very foundation upon which all others depend: communication.

But first, a fun thought experiment: Imagine you don’t have phone, wireless, or internet connectivity. Yes it’s difficult. But that’s not all: now imagine you are working in the jungles of Panama. You have already achieved the nearly impossible, creating a micro-enterprise run by local women who make and sell bags using different types of local plant materials. Despite the 2 hour hike to the road, and the subsequent 2 hour bus ride to the market in town, you still have managed to sell the bags, thereby creating jobs in this otherwise isolated area. But now you really need to hold a meeting. With 100 grandmothers distributed over a 10 mile radius in the jungle. With no connectivity. Game over.

But not if you’re Alex Blum. Faced with this challenge while working in the Peace Corps, Blum did some research, pooled a minimal amount of funding and resources together, and a few months later he had provided wireless technology to over a thousand people in the jungle of Panama for about $20,000. And thus Rugged Communications was born.

Tech4Dev2Before speaking with Blum for this article, I assumed that the story that would be told in this piece would be about a savvy Peace Corps volunteer from Arizona designing a novel technology to bring low-cost communications to lush or heavily forested areas. But what emerged from my conversation with Blum was less about the limitations of technology and more about the limitations our human institutions place on those technologies.

The technology needed to provide wireless service to these populations already exists. And you may be using it right now to read this article. This is not new. The challenge of this last mile digital delivery has thus been less one of technology, and more related to the trifecta of economics, regulations, and politics. Rugged Communication’s innovative model combines existing technologies with key strategic partnership and government subsidies in such a way that it works within these frameworks: the key engineering is essentially human, not technological. “The technology only facilitates and creates the niche opportunity,” Blum says. “The hard work is capitalizing on that.”

And capitalize it does. Besides the obvious and immediate benefits of providing connectivity to thousands, Blum’s success stories speak to the compounding effect of innovation, and the real power of the human network: Rugged Communications has allowed community health workers and telemedicine initiatives to reach this otherwise isolated population, as well as open up e-commerce channels for local artisans to sell their goods. The icing on the cake (yes it gets better): the integrated solar panels that power RC’s towers can also be used to power devices and equipment on the ground.

All of this for the cost of a Volkswagen. Which perhaps makes you wonder: why would we every do it any other way…?

***

RCRugged Communications is currently working on projects in Panama, with additional upcoming projects planned in El Salvador, Haiti and Nicaragua. We graciously thank Founder and CEO Alex Blum for his valuable time, and look forward to following their continued impact in Central America and beyond. You can contact Rugged Communications on Twitter @RuggedComms

How does technology impact your work? Do you have an innovative technology in production that’s making an impact in development and aid work? Are you currently researching or developing a new technology with great potential? We’d love to hear about it. To contribute tweet @PIN_Network or email practicalinitiatives@gmail.com

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