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Restaurant still life in Oaxaca…

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“Nonsense and beauty have close connections — closer connections than Art will allow.”  —E.M. Forster, The Longest Journey, Part I, Chapter 12 (1907).

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Drones have arrived in Oaxaca; their hummy-buzzy sound is unmistakable.  My first “close encounter” of the drone kind down here was 2+ years ago at the Estadio Eduardo Vasconcelos (baseball stadium) when a drone made an appearance at the Lluvia de Estrellas charity home run derby and softball game.

However, two weeks ago as I walked onto the Alameda, that telltale sound caught my ear and a low flying drone caught my eye.  Apparently, it was being used by the Pasión por Oaxaca to draw attention to their (political) organization’s booth.  “Smile, you’re on Candid Camera!”

Then early yesterday morning, there was that sound again.  Looking out the window I could see a drone in the distance.  Of course, I grabbed my camera and went out to investigate.  I guess the operator/pilot saw me, because soon the drone was flying toward my terrace, then stopped to pose for several seconds, before flying off.

Sheesh, Señor DeMille, I was still in my pajamas and definitely NOT ready for my close-up!

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Flying into the city of Oaxaca at night, Talea de Castro is one of the countless tiny pockets of light twinkling from the darkness below.  These earthbound clusters of stars mark small pueblos nestled in the treacherous mountains of the Sierra Norte.

The remote terrain of Oaxaca’s Sierra Norte and Sierra Sur has helped to preserve the traditions of these indigenous communities — but at a high price.  It has also hindered access to technology that could benefit residents of these communities and has made it easy for the “powers that be” to ignore the needs of these villages.  Taking matters into their own hands, I love what the people of Talea de Castro have done.

Forgotten by telecoms, Mexico town runs cell service

AFP – Left out by telecom firms like the one owned by billionaire Carlos Slim, a remote Mexican mountain village now runs its own mobile phone network to communicate with the outside world.

Tucked away in a lush forest in the southern state of Oaxaca, the indigenous village of Villa Talea de Castro, population 2,500, was not seen as a profitable market for companies such as Slim’s America Movil.

Talea de Castro, Oaxaca State, Mexico, taken on August 17, 2013 (AFP Photo/Carlos Salinas)

Talea de Castro, Oaxaca State, Mexico, taken on August 17, 2013
(AFP Photo/Carlos Salinas)

So the village, under an initiative launched by indigenous groups, civil organizations and universities, put up a perch-like antenna on a rooftop, installed radio and computer equipment, and created its own micro provider called Red Celular de Talea (RCT) this year.

Now, restaurant manager Ramiro Perez can call his children and receive food orders on his cellphone at a cheap price in this village dotted by small homes painted in pink and yellow.

The local service costs 15 pesos ($1.2) per month — 13 times cheaper than a big firm’s basic plan in Mexico City — while calls to the United States, where many of the indigenous Zapoteco resident have migrated, charge a few pennies per minute.

“I have two children who live outside the village and I communicate with them at least two or three times per week,” Perez, 60, told AFP.

Before, Perez had to use telephone booths where he paid up to 10 pesos ($0.75) per minute.

A local resident uses his mobile phone in Talea de Castro, Oaxaca State, Mexico, on August 17, 2013. For considering it to be slightly profitable, the big companies of mobile telephony refused for years to give its services in Talea, but the population -- mostly of indigenous origin -- adopted a novel system and created its own company, the Red Celular de Talea (RCT) (Talea Mobile Network).

A local resident uses his mobile phone in Talea de Castro, Oaxaca State, Mexico, on August 17, 2013. For considering it to be slightly profitable, the big companies of mobile telephony refused for years to give its services in Talea, but the population — mostly of indigenous origin — adopted a novel system and created its own company, the Red Celular de Talea (RCT) (Talea Mobile Network).

The coffee-producing village installed the network with the help of Rhizomatica, a non-profit with US, European and Mexican experts who aim to increase access to mobile telecommunications in communities that lack affordable service.

In a statement, Rhizomatica, a civil group named Redes and a town official said they hoped that a telecom reform pushed through Congress by President Enrique Pena Nieto to open the market will “break the obstacles” that prevent the development of such community-based projects.

“Many indigenous communities have shown interest in participating in this project and we hope that many more can join this scheme,” the statement said.

The equipment used in Talea, which was provided by California-based Range Networks, includes a 900mhz radio network and computer software that routes calls, registers numbers and handles billing. Calls to the United States are channeled via a voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) provider.

The village received a two-year-permit from the Federal Communications Commission to have the right to test the equipment.

A local resident operates the equipment enabling mobile communications in Talea de Castro, Oaxaca State, Mexico, on August 17, 2013.

A local resident operates the equipment enabling mobile communications in Talea de Castro, Oaxaca State, Mexico, on August 17, 2013.

When a cellphone user arrives in the village, a text message automatically appears saying: “Welcome to the Talea Cellular Network (RTC) — to register, go to the radio with this message.”

There is one catch: phone calls must be limited to a maximum of five minutes to avoid a saturation of lines.

Israel Hernandez, a village resident and one of the volunteers who helped set up the system, said the network uses the radio-electric spectrum that “telephone (service) providers refuse to use because it is financially unviable.”

Slim’s Telcel is part of his America Movil empire, which controls 70 percent of Mexico’s mobile phone market and has 262 million subscribers across Latin America but never made it to Talea.

Alejandro Lopez, a senior town hall official, said the village had approached big telecom firms but that they had required 10,000 potential users as well as the construction of a path where an antenna would be erected and a lengthy power line.

“Despite some technical problems, because we are in a test period, the project has been a success” with 600 villagers signing up since the service opened three months ago, Lopez said.

Buoyed by the system’s success, the village has decided to buy its own equipment that will allow RCT to run 35 lines simultaneously and plans to install in the coming weeks.

The next step, RCT volunteer Hernandez said, is to form cooperatives with other indigenous villages to request concessions from the Mexican government in order to resolve “this lack of free frequencies for cellphone communications in the country’s rural communities.”

New article from the BBC:  The Mexican village that got itself talking.

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