This impact story was written by Nicola Bidwell as part of the 2019 Affordability Report, which was published on October 22. Illustration by Neema Iyer.
Pseudonyms are used for the names of people and most places to protect participants’ identities.
This account originates in research for the Association for Progressive Communications’ “Local Access Networks: Can the unconnected connect themselves?” project. The research summary and methods used for the work are reported at www.apc.org/en/node/35445/. This work was carried out with the aid of a grant from the International Development Research Centre, Ottawa, Canada. The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent those of IDRC or its Board of Governors.
Francisco has barely any free time. He’s hardly at home, he says, and by all accounts it certainly seems that taxi drivers like him are in their cars more since his community set up its own cell phone service. We sit in the plaza of Santa Catarina, a tiny town, deep in forested mountains far beyond any national Mobile Network Operator’s range, yet where inhabitants often say they “feel lucky to live”. The sounds of birds and music blend in the gentle afternoon warmth of a Saturday in a southern Mexican spring. Francisco tilts his head slightly, across well-tended beds of sunflowers and roses, bougainvillea and large green leaves, towards the Telecomunicaciones Indígenas Comunitarias (TIC) office where TIC subscribers pay their monthly fees. There are over 300 subscribers, mostly from villages that are about a 15 minute drive along a gravel road that twists around the mountains to Santa Catarina’s north, but Francisco brings people from other municipalities too who subscribe because the TIC network also reaches their homes. Subscribers who don’t work or have relatives living in Santa Catarina often pay when they come to the market on Sunday; though, at only 42 pesos (US$2.2) per month for unlimited local voice calls and SMS, Francisco says it’s worth a special trip.
Visitors are usually surprised to discover a cell phone signal in Santa Catarina, and the local customary authority is often asked by other authorities how to build a network like theirs. The TIC network provides the only cell phone coverage across 200Km2 of mountains, where the primarily subsistence population of 2500 offers little to national operators pursuing fast profits. The indigenous assembly’s former president had sought a replacement cell phone service for his Mixtec community after Huawei discontinued a trial of its digital wallet phone. Roughly three years ago, Huawei introduced an e-money credit system for products in local shops and sold subscribers their phones and small smartphones, for 200-800 pesos (US$10-40). The signal, however, deteriorated after subscribers started calling each other more than using the digital wallet so, drawing on long traditions of community work, inhabitants hauled materials up the mountains to install their own solar-powered, 2G base station. The station connects by internet to Rhizomatica, a non-profit based 200Km away that supports fifteen indigenous phone networks. Some subscribers in Santa Catarina support the TIC network entirely because it provides low-income inhabitants affordable telecommunications and others because it is autonomous or benefits their community rather than commercial providers. The TIC service is not infallible, which conflates with some subscribers’ unfamiliarity with phones. Sometimes calls don’t connect and SMSs are misdirected when the network’s limited channels are congested. However, inhabitants say that similar problems of saturation arise in the networks of national operators in Mexico’s largest cities and that during the fatal earthquake six months before, which fractured the church walls, their TIC network was accessible when elsewhere in Mexico the national operators’ were not. Francisco notices the network is slower at night and dawn, when SMS won’t send and calls are inaudible, but during the day SMS are delivered more or less straight away. He also said that some subscribers lack familiarity with phones, for instance, they press the call button in an attempt to send an SMS, so he answers repeated calls from callers who don’t speak.
The TIC network supports long-distance, as well as local, calls which helps many inhabitants stay in touch with loved ones living far away. Francisco’ son is away studying agroindustry in Mexico City, his brother lives in northern Mexico and two sisters in Florida. Outgoing long-distance calls require subscribers to preload credit but there are far more incoming long-distance calls so on average subscribers buy only 20 pesos (US$1) credit a month. It’s a different situation to the five years that Francisco himself lived in the USA. Back then, in the late 1990s, long-distance calls involved organising the use of satellite or landline phone services in shops in Santa Catarina, and listening to announcements over the public speaker system for unexpected incoming calls. These days the little plywood phone booths inside the shops lie empty, and the shops focus their business on computers, internet hot-spots and providing Wi-Fi to homes that can afford it. Francisco subscribes to a Wi-Fi service that connects internet to his home for 100 pesos a month, set up by an engineer in the nearest small city, although his family uses the internet more than he does. He has 20 contacts each on Facebook and WhatsApp, but tends to speak only with his son while he is at home because, as he says, his free time is scarce when he is always in his taxi responding to client’s calls.
“I don’t walk anymore, we just ask for services to our door,” said a woman with high blood pressure who lives with her family by the river in a valley surrounding Santa Catarina. There’s certainly a close coupling between taxi work and calls over the TIC network since few people own vehicles. The phone service enables making ad-hoc arrangements independently without having to wait for others to coordinate, for instance to attend an assembly in another village. In fact, many people said that the last time they used their phone was to call a taxi driver to bring them to wherever we met. “Nowadays we can’t wait 5 minutes, we have trouble assimilating time”, a man in the assembly said; although most people still walk to their jobs and their banana and coffee plantations every day.
Some people begrudge spending 20 pesos for a taxi back up the hill to their villages after walking 2-hours to the TIC office to pay their monthly subscriptions and for extra credit when they had no other reason to visit Santa Catarina. Juan, for instance, would like to set up a local subscription desk in his village’s community centre to serve his neighbours. He’s already in his 80s yet still works his fields and is eager to learn how to administer subscriptions, “all of us learn until we die” he said. Juan explains that drivers who own their own taxis only charge him 10 pesos for the trip to Santa Catarina, but his humble home and his reliance on his children, who live far away, to pay his TIC subscription suggests that even a reduced rate is a considerable expense.
The symbiosis between the phone and taxis services is mostly positive for inhabitants whose everyday life entwines with the steeply inclined, but richly fertile, mountains and, like most rural populations, tend to be older. People repeatedly described using the phone to call taxis during emergencies, especially in the plantations several hours walk from their homes. Alberto, in his seventies, a local historian and storyteller, said the service helped him to continue to work his fields into his old age because he can call for a taxi to pick him up, when he is tired or sick. Other men agreed that the service made it easier to respond to accidents in the fields or on the road; a sixty-year old man explained, for instance, that if they had not had a phone service to call a taxi when someone fainted in the plantations, then a strong young man would have had to carry the person on his shoulders all the way home. Meanwhile, a women explained that when she was very sick she called both a taxi and the nurse so the clinic was ready for her arrival.
It’s not just the pace of taxi drivers’ work that has accelerated, and more efficiently coordinating transport has helped other businesses too. A car mechanic explained that he can now be on call while tending his fields and fixes more tyres, especially for taxis. Other people mentioned using the phone to organise pick-ups for labourers to their plantations and transporting produce to sell in the small city. A shop owner in Santa Catarina said that her customers phone her to check she has a product is in stock before they take a taxi. Meanwhile, Rosa, who owns a busy cantina in the fruit market phones her meat supplier in Yucuninu, the small city, to negotiate prices on her orders, which a taxi driver later collects. Calling ahead means Rosa’s meat is less expensive nowadays than it was when she was just one of several people who gave a shopping list and the money to taxi drivers who chose their provisions for them.
Francisco’s days vary but usually involve responding to two or three calls or SMS from people living in villages around Santa Catarina. He brings clients to Santa Catarina or drives them to Yucuninu, the small city, 60Km away. People usually call Francisco for a trip at the moment they want to travel and, since calls only connect to a driver’s local number when he is within the TIC network’s range and not on the other side of the mountain, drivers do not tend to coordinate with each other to distribute local pick-ups. This morning nobody called Francisco to book a trip so, after waking at 5 am and washing his car, as he does every day, he waited in the taxi rank at the corner of Santa Catarina’s plaza, and drove several passengers on the 7 am scheduled trip to Yucuninu. Drivers at the rank take turns to drive long-distance trips for clients who arrive according to a typed timetable stuck on the wall of a building nearby. Francisco ate breakfast in Yucuninu and then departed from its taxi office at 11:00am, bringing other passengers home. Sometimes he arrives home from a long trip much later, as he did when he returned from Oaxaca yesterday at 9 pm, with only time to eat dinner with his wife and three of his children and then go straight to sleep.
Francisco combines using the TIC network with other providers’ services as he moves in and out of their respective coverage. Like many inhabitants he owns a SIM card for the national provider, Telcell, which he uses when driving on the other side of the high mountain range, to Yucuninu or Oaxaca, as he did last Thursday. He usually buys 20 or 30 pesos credit for Telcell when he drives to the city, though on Thursday he bought more as he called his son in Mexico City and used WhatsApp to text his brother. On Santa Catarina’s side of the high mountain range, Francisco uses WhatsApp directly only when in range of the Wi-Fi at his home but not while driving since only phones on the TIC network and radios can connect. If Francisco needs to be certain a message reaches a recipient, while he drives on Santa Catarina’s side of the high mountain range, he will sometimes call or radio someone who is within internet coverage to intermediate a WhatsApp message on his behalf.
Phones have completely replaced radios for everyone but taxi drivers and local authorities. Radios are expensive and people prefer the confidentiality that phone and internet networks permit rather than exposing their conversations to all others searching the radio channels. Francisco uses the radio to contact other drivers. Today, for instance, when he re-entered coverage on Santa Catarina’s side of the high mountain range he asked the other drivers where they all were in order to plan a meeting. However, to use the radio to communicate between either side of the high mountain range, for example between Santa Catarina and the taxi office in Yucuninu, involves two-steps. Francisco explains that he calls someone who lives on top of the mountain and has a line of sight in both directions, who relays the message onwards, by radio, SMS or WhatsApp.After we spoke Francisco set off to meet the other drivers grouped at the taxi rank, a few playing cards on a car bonnet. His daughter drove his taxi to pick up someone from a village a couple of hours ago when he was told that we hoped to speak to him. She doesn’t usually drive the taxi, she actually studies mechatronics Francisco proudly says, but all the drivers needed to meet and their time is hard to coordinate. The drivers were to discuss sponsoring a prize for a sports event in a village’s forthcoming fiesta because they often drive the competitors to events. The taxis, like the phone service, it seems are an integral part of the everyday social cohesion amongst these remote mountain villages.
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