It's cheap to talk

May 7, 1999

A Pounds 9 million contract to bring telephones to rural Africa has put two British university academics firmly on the map.

Rural Radio Systems, a company established five years ago by Southampton University's Steve Braithwaite and former Warwick University engineering lecturer Steve Chandler, has just signed a deal to provide 12,000 radio phones to Nigeria.

The contract means 50 extra jobs on top of the 20 the company already employs.

The pair started developing their collaborative telephone system a decade ago. What has resulted is a briefcase-sized communications box, which users attach to the wall. The box contains a radio able to receive and send radio signals. The system works by relying on a network of such miniboxes transmitting signals over long distances.

"Any telephone system you put into developing countries has to be radio based," said Mr Braithwaite, lecturer in Southampton's department of electrical and computer science. "Wires are so hard to maintain."

Until now, radio telephone systems have required large base stations with huge aerials. "It gets prohibitively expensive. But with this all you need is a box at each user's house and aerials on the roof," he said.

Each box can be up to 50 kilometres from the next and the system can feed into normal lines, enabling someone in a rural police station or hospital to phone internationally.

"Our system is designed to deal with the problems that major phone manufacturers do not look at," he said.

The system is being used in the Falklands, as well as in Malaysia, China and Brazil.

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