Pangea uses voice calls to enable data access on phones
A Silicon Valley startup claims it can facilitate Internet access on unconnected mobile devices through a proprietary technology that negates the need for a data connection or WiFi.
Pangea Communications, a one-year-old startup, banks on a telecom operator's voice infrastructure to connect key apps, co-founder and CEO Vlad Iuhas said.
In the next few days, the startup will conduct a pilot launch in India before taking the technology to other developing markets. The Pangea app can be downloaded from Google's Play Store.
"India is so big that we can draw a lot of inputs from the pilot project here. Many Indian users are tech-savvy and so we hope to get good feedback for our future pilot projects," he said.
After India, the startup plans to do test launches in Indonesia and Nigeria. If the pilot projects are successful, Pangea, which raised pre-seed funding of $200,000 early this year, will raise fresh capital for global expansion.
"Currently, about four billion people globally lack Internet but most people have a mobile phone. Pangea can bring the benefits of connectivity to any smart/feature phone without having to use a data connection," Iuhas told Techcircle.in.
In what may come as a surprise to many, India ranks below Bhutan and Sri Lanka in terms of broadband penetration, according to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India's latest report. In the wireless or mobile broadband segment, India is ranked at 113 globally. As against the target of achieving 175 million broadband connections by 2017, only 85.74 million have been achieved with the download speed currently at 512 Kbps.
How it works
Pangea essentially sends data over the mobile telephony infrastructure used for voice calls, much like the dial-up Internet connections of the 1990s.
"In functionality, it's the same as a dial-up connection. But technology-wise its much more superior and intricate," Iuhas said.
The Pangea app first converts data into a sound wave to ensure that the telecom operator's back end reads it as a human voice call. The sound wave is then delivered to the user's mobile device through a short voice call. Pangea then reconstructs the data on a user's phone, Iuhas said.
In other words, every time a user plays with an app, Pangea makes a quick call and transfers the requested data.
"Our technology enables carriers to deliver data over the existing infrastructure for no additional cost," Iuhas said.
Since the app needs to be downloaded first, Pangea hopes that users living in remote villages would head into a city (where data is readily available), download the app and share it with their communities when they return. It is also targeting users who may lose access to mobile data on the go.
Currently, Pangea enables connectivity at 5 Kbps, which Iuhas admits is slow. The startup hopes to crank this up to 64 Kbps.
"If we get to 20 Kbps in a few months, it would be good enough for something like a Facebook Live to work reasonably well," he said.
The current data speed restricts Pangea to text-based applications. Once it scales up, the startup aims to roll out Wikipedia on its app.
"We would like to have as many apps on the platform, but for the purpose of the pilot project and to make sure that the technology works, we have restricted ourselves to only a few right now," Iuhas said.
Down the line, Pangea plans to integrate a news portal and Facebook's Internet.org, an initiative that enables access to selected apps and app-based services at zero cost.
Internet.org and net neutrality
India is one of the key target markets for Facebook's Internet.org programme, which counts Reliance Communications as a domestic partner. Internet.org has been criticised heavily for violating the principle of net neutrality.
In order to counter this, Facebook tweaked the initiative and re-branded it as Free Basics last month. The platform was opened for any app developer who wished to include his/her services on it.
Does all the brouhaha over Internet.org worry Pangea?
"We have to think really hard about it since it's a big issue. I am not sure if there is a good way to solve it. The best way is to make everything as free as possible," said Iuhas.
Iuhas said monetisation models will evolve once more people sign up for the service. Pangea is targeting a base of four billion unconnected people in developing countries. Ultimately, its plan is to sign up with telecom companies, said Iuhas.
Won't telecom companies see Pangea as a competitor?
"No. On the contrary, they want to work with us so that they can sell more voice minutes. Globally, fewer voice calls are being made as a result of which infrastructure is unused," Iuhas said.
"It's a zero-cost affair for the telecom companies and a win-win for everybody," he added. Moreover, telecom carriers want more people to try mobile Internet for the first time. Once a first timer gets used to connectivity, he/she would wish to buy faster data plans from the operator.
The end user would not have to pay anything for testing the service in the soft-launch phase. Once Pangea officially launches and ties up with carriers, users may be charged on the basis of their monthly voice usage. The official launch is scheduled for early next year.
Pangea's engineering team is based in Romania. As a result, its costs are lower than that of a Silicon Valley startup.
Its other co-founders are Sebastian Presecan and Radu Iuhas. Presecan, also the company's CTO, holds a doctorate in pervasive computing. He managed the team that developed Trip Journal, a travel app that won Google Developers' Challenge in 2009. Chief strategy officer Radu Iuhas previously worked as product director for Trip Journal and CEO of Crosscut US.
Pangea plans to soon ramp up its team to have feet on ground across major cities.