The Telfer School’s David Wright is helping to design a sustainable business model for managing a wireless telehealth network in a rural area of Peru. As Professor Wright explains, a small business run by a local entrepreneur is the most effective way of maintaining and expanding a network such as this one.
The project in brief
The health centres in three communities were linked by directional WiFi to a local hospital through a network managed by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Humanitarian Technology Challenge (HTC) in collaboration with partners such as the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru and the Alto Amazonas Health Network. Built in 2011, the network has enabled remote consultations and better inventory control and disease monitoring while boosting morale among the doctors and nurses that work in remote areas. The goal is to extend the network further into other villages in this remote region.
Our network is located in the Balsapuerto district of Northern Peru. The local topography required the construction of 60 m-high towers, on which was mounted the directional WiFi equipment and solar panels. Transportation of the tower components and building equipment was by boat along the tributaries of the Upper Amazon.
I have a background in the business and engineering sides of telecommunications. I became involved in this project through the IEEE Humanitarian Technology Challenge to assist in the development of suitable business models that would entice a local entrepreneur to participate in a social enterprise around this initiative.
Our wireless telehealth network was established in three villages, which provides a demonstration that this technology works. Now a local entrepreneur can make money out of extending it to other villages – someone with knowledge of the civil engineering construction aspects, and telecom expertise. The network could be expanded each year under the business plans that we’ve developed, which take into account potential revenues from the local health, education and municipal authorities and other funding sources to cover the costs of maintenance and expansion. Support for the incubation of the enterprise can be provided through the local university which has been very successful in building other WiFi networks.
Community co-ops work best when the level of community involvement is high. In Balsapuerto, the very limited transportation between the villages makes for limited social cohesion. A small business, on the other hand, one with an employee in each village, would maintain the involvement of local people in the operation of the network and ensure coordination among them.
A lot of rusty telecoms equipment is scattered around the developing world that doesn’t work, because it isn’t maintained. If you can make a business case for a local entrepreneur to maintain it, then they will maintain it, because that makes money for them. So we have developed business plans for how to hand it over to an entrepreneur, but we’re taking our time to make sure this person is going to do a good job.
The Ottawa connection
The software and hardware were tested in Ottawa before being shipped off to Peru. The basic idea is that outdoor point-to-point WiFi, through use of directional antennas, can be extended with many kilometers between stations, providing low-cost long distance communications. A test-bed was built in 2010 in Ottawa using directional WiFi to link buildings at the University of Ottawa and Algonquin College, using equipment contributed by two Ottawa-based firms. Staff from Computing and Communication Services and the Campus Sustainability Office generously contributed their time and expertise in building the test-bed, located on the roof of the Desmarais Building.
Professor Wright combines an Engineering PhD with his current position as Full Professor at the University of Ottawa's Telfer School of Management to provide a business perspective on Information and Communications Technology. Dr. Wright teaches courses in sustainability and environmental entrepreneurship.