In late April, residents across the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) were pleasantly surprised to receive phone calls from friends and relatives living in the remote northeastern corner of the country. For the first time, the people of Niangara, in the heavily-forested Haut Uélé District of Orientale Province, have access to a cellular communications network in their isolated community. This breakthrough in communications potential is part of a public-private partnership between USAID and Vodacom Congo to pilot four low-cost and light-weight “AltoPod” base transmission stations that will provide cellular coverage in remote, conflict-affected areas of Haut Uélé and Bas Uélé Districts.
The first Vodacom pilot tower, in Niangara, went live on April 21, 2013, and will be followed in the coming days and weeks by the activation of additional towers in Bangadi, Doruma, and Ango. Each of the four towers, all partially funded by USAID, will provide a minimum of 315 square kilometers of cell phone connectivity to 1,200 mobile phone users. This project represents one of the most technologically advanced communications initiatives attempted in the DRC. While the new base transmission station technology, pioneered by the Ireland-based Altobridge company, has proven effective and profitable for mobile network operators in a handful of areas around the world with similar profiles – low population density and poor infrastructure – it is only now being tested by a mobile network operator in the DRC. Should the pilot project prove economically viable for the company, it is envisioned that Vodacom Congo or other DRC mobile network operators will branch into additional remote regions of the country currently still lacking cellular coverage.
In launching this pilot project, USAID is seeking to increase communications options in isolated corners of the DRC that have been subject to armed attacks. This expansion of cellular coverage opens the door to potential advances in a variety of different domains, including civilian protection, humanitarian response, public service delivery, and economic activity. It is up to the individual community members in each of the target sites to decide how to best make use of this new cellular connectivity to improve their daily lives. From mobile banking applications to the exchange of health-related information to increased citizen communication with government, security, and humanitarian actors – a host of new possibilities are now available for communities to consider.