PETER BLOOM

Mexico,

Peter Bloom is democratizing communication technologies by using a government-owned mobile frequency to guarantee communication rights in isolated communities. He employs an innovative technological model that is low cost, foments local economic development, and is regulated by the communities themselves. Peter is thus spearheading a movement for rural communities to own their own telecom services, within the limits of the law, in a sustainable way.

This profile below was prepared when Peter Bloom was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2014.

INTRODUCTION

Peter Bloom is democratizing communication technologies by using a government-owned mobile frequency to guarantee communication rights in isolated communities. He employs an innovative technological model that is low cost, foments local economic development, and is regulated by the communities themselves. Peter is thus spearheading a movement for rural communities to own their own telecom services, within the limits of the law, in a sustainable way.




THE NEW IDEA

Peter Bloom and Rhizomática are revolutionizing the field of communication technologies in rural Mexico by providing isolated communities with innovative, low cost mobile technology that is accessible to all community members. Rhizomática is armed with innovative open-source technologies developed in the last few years, community mobilizing strategies, and creative litigation that it uses to challenge the status quo. The project and the disruptive technology it employs allow people to make and receive calls and SMS locally for free, and internationally at the lowest available rates, all the while keeping as much of this money circulating within the community as possible. 

Rhizomática aims to create opportunities that allow municipal governments and community-based enterprises to become cellular telephone service providers, thereby increasing access and spurring economic growth in places needing both. Peter’s business model is based upon community consensus and is built to ensure that economic benefits from the telecommunication system accrue to the community. Rhizomática aims to help communities manage their own telecommunications infrastructure and service by leveraging the already intact community hierarchy and decision-making structure. The idea behind this business model is to optimize access to mobile communication in a way that empowers communities and makes the most sense in the local context. Communities are involved in the ownership and management of their networks, which promotes local buy-in, ultimately driving down cost. The model is focused on long-term sustainability of the network, and creates a simple business model for communities to follow that will allow them to obtain a small but substantial profit within a maximum of 3 years. Rhizomática works directly with selected community members to ensure they know how to operate, maintain and repair the equipment, as well as how to use the technology for community benefit. As the community itself owns the equipment and profit from the network, it is in community members’ interest to maintain facilities and protect the equipment and generally keep the network online and running smoothly.

Rhizomática is impacting public telecommunications policy and is also highly replicable. Rhizomática´s approach of combining regulatory reform with decentralization is unique. The legal viability of the project is substantiated by the Mexican Constitution and the Federal Telecommunications Law.  Nevertheless, as there does not exist any clear framework for small and community telecommunication operators in Mexico yet, Rhizomática advocates for and creates public policy and industry regulation interventions that create a more favorable and clearly delineated legal climate.




THE PROBLEM

Peter Bloom is tackling the problem of scarce telecommunications services in rural communities. The problem is tridimensional. Firstly, many rural Mexican communities are left without access to communication services because telecommunications companies see these communities as a waste of their time and services. About 2 to 3 billion people worldwide do not have access to any phone or mobile telephone service. According to the Secretary for Communication and Transportation, there are at least 50,000 Mexican communities without affordable coverage. Some regions are geographically more difficult to penetrate due to mountainous terrain or general underdevelopment. In the state of Oaxaca – one of the least connected – there are thousands of small communities lacking connectivity to cellular telephone services. Another aspect of the problem is that the exorbitant prices of telecom services make it extremely difficult for these communities to pay for mobile connectivity and, when they do manage to pay, the large sum of money paid leaves the local economy. For instance, in Talea de Castro, a rural community in the Sierra Norte of Oaxaca, it can cost up to 15 MXN or $1.25 USD per minute to call the USA, where many have family and friends. 

Lack of cellular connectivity in Mexico’s rural communities creates a number of obstacles for community members on a daily basis. In the absence of telephones people must travel sometimes by foot for hours before they reach a telephone. In emergency cases, finding a phone becomes a matter of life or death. Businesses often become non-competitive due to lack of mobile connectivity, as was the case with a Rhizomática community member who farms in the highlands and needs to know the daily price of his commodity in the city center market. When people must conduct all business in person and go shop-to-shop to find a vendor, their transaction prices are often too high to keep the business running profitably. A 2012 OECD report stated "the poor development of telecommunication infrastructure in Mexico has resulted in a significant welfare loss for users estimated at an average of USD PPP of $25.8 billion per year equivalent to 1.8% of the Mexican GDP per year.” Other negative externalities include the welfare loss incurred by existing users who are overcharged in their use of telecommunication services, or the welfare loss resulting from unrealized subscriptions to telecommunication services. Medical emergencies also pose a grave challenge in this context of cellular disconnectivity. People cannot call for immediate medical attention because community doctor and nurses do not have connected cell phones.

Finally, there is a lack of governmental ability to connect these communities to telecommunication systems because of geographical penetration and infrastructure problems. This issue is compounded by the fact that prohibitory legal structures in the national telecom sector deepen dependence upon Mexican telecom monopolies. The Mexican legal structure poses a challenge to the development of telecommunications in marginalized communities and effectively protects monopolistic practices. Most telecom regulations forbid the provision of strictly rural service, prohibiting small providers interested and capable of serving the disconnected from thriving.  Only very large, politically powerful companies have access to the mobile spectrum and the concessions to provide cellular service. Consequentially, Mexico has the third worst penetration of cellular telephony after Cuba and Bolivia. The unconnected communities in Mexico are usually rural and economically disadvantaged, meaning that they do not represent a meaningful market for incumbent providers legally allowed to operate (i.e. Telcel or Movistar). These providers have no compulsory service obligation and there is no legal enforcement of their contracts, so these companies ignore localities with fewer than 5,000 inhabitants. In the state of Oaxaca, 53% of inhabitants live in communities with fewer than 2,500 inhabitants.




THE STRATEGY

Peter Bloom and Rhizomática have designed appropriate technology and a community consensus-based administration model in order to provide isolated communities with telecommunications access. The idea for such a system came to Peter while he was working on a mobile video initiative in a Nigerian community displaced by oil companies. In Nigeria, Peter realized that all of the communities he was working with had cell phones, but that few of these cell phones were connected to a server. Many Nigerians were using their cell phones as flashlights and alarm clocks, but most cell phone owners could not access to their basic communication rights due to prohibitive costs and logistics. It was in this context that Peter first identified the opportunity he had to help these communities economically by designing a self-administered cellular infrastructure and connectivity plan. It was not until Peter moved to Mexico, however, that this project began to seem surmountable. After a great deal of research into mobile communications, Peter assembled a technologically savvy team and began to design the system he had dreamt of for so long.

There are three components included in the actual system’s infrastructure: Radio Access Network, a computer suite administrative system, and internet connection. The Radio Access Network allows for communication between the network and a user's cell phone via an interface radiofrequency at 850mHz. The software suite meanwhile runs on a computer that manages all of the functions of the network including routing calls, registering numbers, and handling billing. Internet connection is achieved via a VoIP provider that allows calls to come in and out of the network from outside. In order to call the USA from the village, the user simply dials. At this point, their phone connects to the Radio Access Network, which then pings the software and determines if they have enough credit to make the call. The network then sends the call through the internet connection to the VoIP provider to the final number. The equipment design and technological aspects are made possible by strategic partnerships with inventors and manufacturers who work directly with Rhizomática to modify and test their equipment. Rhizomática’s technology results in network setup for a fraction of what it costs a company like Telcel ($2,500 USD vs. $250,000 USD). 

One of the most important aspects of Rhizomática’s organizational design is its reliance on a community-based mode that leverages the strong community organizing structures in rural Mexico. This model of training the communities in mobile service provision ensures that the services are sustainable and will remain reasonably priced in the local context. In every community that Peter and Rhizomática work with, the process begins with a meeting between Peter and community leaders, during which both parties try to understand what the other can provide. Then, if the community is interested in working with Rhizomática, the leaders must submit a formal petition for partnership which is written after a unanimous community vote. The next step is a meeting at which Peter explains the services that Rhizomática can provide and discusses the rights and responsibilities of both partners, the community and Rhizomática. The community must then make an initial investment of $5,000 USD to set up the network. In comparison, it costs all other service providers in the region between $250,000 to $1,000,000 to set up a network in these places. 

With this new communication system, Peter Bloom has strengthened the communities’ economies by reducing cost up to 98% on international (U.S.) calls and 66% on cellphone calls. Rhizomática saves 66% as compared to other service providers, saving up to $850,000 pesos per year. Rhizomática’s services also facilitate mobile and internet services for banking and healthcare, growth in productivity, and communication in case of emergencies in these communities. The new telephone network makes life in the village easier for many, enabling home delivery services, communication with doctors, and community-wide messaging by local leaders. When a new network goes up in a village, Rhizomática is paid a flat rate to install the equipment and train community members on how to maintain and operate the equipment. Rhizomática then receives a percentage of monthly subscription fees from the community. For example, Rhizomática charges a one-time fee of $30,000 MXN to install and train members. In communities with less than 500 users, Rhizomática receives 10 MXN per user. In communities of more than 500, Rhizomática receives 8 MXN per user. A call placed to someone outside the community now costs a user 2 cents (USD) per minute, as compared to the previous price of $1.25 USD per minute. A call placed to someone within the village now costs 5 cents (MXN), a huge improvement over the previously charged 6 MXN per minute.

In order to make these services feasible in the long-term, Rhizomática is also working with public policymakers in the federal government to create a legal environment that allows for the use of government-owned mobile frequencies for low-cost use in rural Mexican communities. Peter is basing his work on the nation’s duty to provide access to communication, a legal provision found in the second article of the Mexican Constitution and telecommunication law 50. Rhizomática’s pilot site was the precedent for such use, and has since been pressuring the regulatory agency to approve a rural service framework. Industry regulators from Cofetel and the Secretary of Communication and Transportation have acknowledged the importance of Rhizomática’s project and have granted them a two year frequency access concession in the five states of Oaxaca, Guerrero, Puebla, Tlaxcala, and Veracruz.

Rhizomática is functioning socially, economically and legally. The organization has proven the efficacy of its approach in pilot phases in 2 communities and is now positioned to scale rapidly. In Sierra Juárez of Oaxaca, Rhizomática has benefited up to 500 individuals and saved them 850,000 MXN per year. After this success, Rhizomática now has a waiting list of 35 communities who want to partner with them. In order to provide mobile access to all of the communities that need this service, Rhizomática trains people from all over Mexico to replicate its model and hopes to be an umbrella organization for a decentralized yet widespread change in the Mexican telecommunication paradigm in rural communities. Financially, Rhizomática’s model becomes totally self-sustaining after the installation of 6 or 7 networks. He is building legal checkpoints in conjunction with the government telecommunications agencies in order to ensure that those who are granted access to the government-owned digital frequency use this frequency for primarily social, rather than profit, motives. At this point, he is still participating in all of the advisory boards developing the communications laws for isolated communities. 

In the next year, Rhizomática aims to double the ability of the average user in 10 sites (approx. 8,000 users) in Oaxaca to make and receive calls, and add SMS and access value-added services like mobile banking. In five years, Rhizomática aims to have at least 200 sites serving approximately 150,000 people and will have created a regulatory scheme within Mexican telecommunications law that ensures access to the necessary frequency spectrum in rural areas. The organization also plans to create a revolving loan fund to facilitate communities’ initial investment in network equipment. In ten years, Rhizomática aims to have expanded beyond the state of Oaxaca to other parts of Mexico and internationally, running thousands of sites with millions of subscribers and intervening in foreign telecommunication regulatory frameworks.




THE PERSON

Peter Bloom, an American national, has developed three social ventures in his lifetime: Juntos in the U.S., Media Project for Justice in Nigeria, and Rhizomática in Mexico. At the mere age of 20, Peter founded Juntos in Philadelphia, PA. This organization works with immigrant communities to promote community and political organizing for justice as well as just treatment in the United States and immigrant’s country of origin. Peter´s father came from a disadvantaged background and instilled in Peter a readily apparent passion for social justice.

After spending seven years directing of Juntos, Peter handed over a successful business, and started to work as an independent consultant for various NGOs including Amnesty International, the Centre for Environment, Human Rights and Development (Nigeria), Social Action Integrated Development Centre (Nigeria), Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (Nigeria), and the Stakeholder Democracy Network (Nigeria) ultimately culminating in working with Nigerian human rights organizations to train human rights monitors on the use of video and online tools. Peter Bloom’s challenge of working on a team of human rights reporters and citizen-journalists who lacked affordable means to transfer data caused him to have an epiphany; there had to be a way to share information, including large video files, via cellular phones without having to pay huge data charges. How to get people the coverage, and the benefits it provides, kept Peter awake for a number of years. In 2010, while still in Nigeria, Peter Bloom co-founded the Media for Justice Project that secured funding for a pilot project that would provide the means for affordable data sharing and communication. The segue to working as a member of Palabra Radio, an organization in Southern Mexico, that helped people solve their communication issues with FM radio was natural. During meetings on behalf of Palabra Radio with engineers, agents from local sustainable development offices, and over 30 community authorities and municipal governments in rural areas, Peter Bloom recognized the need for an organization dedicated solely to increasing access to mobile-phone based communications.

All of these experiences combined to give Peter Bloom a clear idea of what type of community communication strategies are truly viable, thus he founded Rhizomática in 2011.  Peter attended high school in France and the U.S. and later graduated with honors from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in Urban Studies. Peter has obtained several awards, amongst others the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Prize from the University of Pennsylvania recognizing his extraordinary social commitment.




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