The problem with providing rural cellular and internet access is not the cost of building the network, but the cost of running it, Vanu Bose realised when he set out to solve his own lack of broadband in Vermont.
The brilliant MIT-trained engineer had worked out how to make a rural cellular network profitable when its customers spent only $1 a month but first he had to reengineer the telecoms equipment and its business model to achieve it. And he did, most recently using this system to provide telecoms and connectivity for Puerto Rico after it was devastated by Hurricane Maria earlier this year.
Living in the rural part of the American state of Vermont Bose watched enviously as fibre and broadband arrived in nearby towns but remained unavailable in his home, he told me. From this constraint he started working out how to make cellular base stations smaller, require less energy and use solar power – which would make it an ideal way of providing connectivity in emerging markets.
His company, Vanu Inc, had been working on a groundbreaking project with Kenyan tech start-up BRCK and Facebook to bring free internet connectivity to rural Rwanda, which was announced last month. Yes, free.
Bose, who died aged 52 last Saturday of a sudden pulmonary embolism, was as close as it came to engineering royalty. He graduated from the famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with three degrees and was a technology pioneer and entrepreneur in his own right. His surname is synonymous with the Bose Corporation, the maker of high-end audio systems that his famous father, MIT Professor Amar Bose, invented.
Vanu Bose worked on cellular equipment for United States networks, as well as for Vodafone and Tata in India so he understood not only the technology but the fundamental business model. “If you can make a single cell site profitable, you can build a profitable network,” he told me at the AfricaCom conference in Cape Town. “A lot of governments and philanthropists don’t understand the problem. They haven’t solved the business model.”
But the gifted engineer had. “We have a business model we believe is 10x better for rural areas and is; and its profitable down to a $1 ARPU (average spend per user). We have to prove this. That’s what we’re doing in Rwanda. We’re building a network that when it’s done will cover a million people in Rwanda to validate the economics to expand the network.”
“Vanu was a smart guy,” BRCK CEO Erik Hersman told me. “He realised that the innovation for phone connectivity in the emerging markets was not about the initial cost, but the ongoing operating costs of the solution. He worked to minimise both, but it was his work on making his whole micro-tower solution completely off-grid with only solar power that really opened up the possibilities. He did what the big mobile operators didn’t. He saw the rural populations as a market that could be addressed, served and made profitable.”
A second-generation entrepreneur, who worked out how to make internet access in rural areas viable, Vanu Bose has made his first name as famous as his surname. His legacy will be all those people in rural areas who are now on the internet thanks to his groundbreaking engineering. As Hersman says: ” He was generous, adding more to the world than he took”.
This article first appeared in Financial Mail