The Unfinished Work of Vanu Bose
With an energy-efficient approach to rural connectivity, the late entrepreneur founded a company that aims to bring cellular coverage to the 1.1 billion people who lack it.
From MIT Technology Review - October 24, 2017
A couple of years ago, Vanu Bose was driving down a dirt road in rural Rwanda searching for sites to install a new kind of cellular base station. Developed by his wireless-technology company, Vanu, Inc., the stations would be part of his plan to bring connectivity to a million Rwandans without coverage. But his companions, both veterans of the cellular industry, had assumed that, like every other cellular service provider, Bose sought places where other carriers were operating—areas in which to incrementally expand. So that’s where they kept taking him.
“After three hours of conversation in the car,” he recalls, “they finally said to me, ‘Oh I get it—you want to know the places where there is absolutely no coverage. We’ve never looked at those before.’”
Their surprise could be forgiven: what Bose is trying to do sounds almost impossible. He wants to color in the blank spots on the cellular coverage map of populated areas, not only in Rwanda but around the world. Ideally, all of them. Within the next five years. And he wants to make a profit while doing it.
“Nobody’s been able to find a way to make rural developing-market coverage economically viable,” Bose says. People in rural Rwanda spend about a dollar a month on their cell phones, which they can use only in places with coverage. So most service providers avoid the sparsely populated areas. “The average revenue per site is just too low for them,” he says. “But it’s a potentially very big market.”
The GSM Association, a mobile-industry trade group, estimates that as much as 15 percent of the global population—1.1 billion people—live in areas with little or no coverage.
Bose, 52, the son of the acoustic engineering pioneer Amar G. Bose, is up for the challenge. To provide coverage in rural areas beyond the electric grid, he and his colleagues have developed a device he calls the Community Connect. Weighing around 20 pounds and built to withstand wind, sand, vandals, and temperatures of 132 ˚F, this “network-in-a-box” offers connectivity—and lets the company maintain and upgrade its software—through such media as DSL, wireless broadband, or a satellite link.
But the device’s key feature is that it uses little electricity, running on just 64 watts of power supplied entirely by solar panels. Conventional base stations can use 10 or more kilowatts and guzzle thousands of dollars’ worth of diesel fuel each month. While most base-station systems are optimized for performance standards such as better spectrum efficiency and higher data transmission rates, Bose and his team decided to trade off some performance for energy savings, minimizing each component’s power consumption.
“With satellite connectivity and solar power, the only infrastructure I need is a three-by-five-meter plot of land,” Bose says. The total cost of a site—including land, equipment, installation, and commissioning—is $25,000. Vanu has no subscribers of its own; it offers coverage through established cellular service providers, who pay for each minute or megabyte their customers use. By signing deals with multiple competing carriers, Vanu can generate enough revenue per site to turn a profit.
But carriers were skeptical at first. So Bose built a network of sites in Rwanda in 2016 before he’d inked a single deal. Within a few months, more than 100,000 of the three Rwandan carriers’ subscribers—villagers who’d previously traveled periodically to the closest town with coverage to call or text—were using Vanu’s network. “We found there were a whole lot more phones already in rural uncovered areas than anybody would have imagined,” he says.
With the data in hand, Bose persuaded one carrier’s CEO to agree to sign a contract; talks with a second carrier are under way. Now, his network is in use by over 200,000 Rwandans who’d had no cell coverage at home or work.
Vanu plans to connect thousands of villages in India and is considering expanding to Zambia, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Kenya, Uganda, and Botswana in the coming years. Those countries are home to many of the world’s unconnected people: 62 percent of sub-Saharan Africans and 67 percent of Indians live in rural areas.
Bose believes the value of providing remote coverage extends far beyond phone and Internet service. A cellular connection also makes possible solar home lighting systems financed with phone-based “pay as you go” systems, digital banking services, weather and market price notifications for farmers, access to medical information for rural health workers, educational materials for teachers and students in rural schools, and more.
“We have a lot of evidence on the impacts of mobile money,” says Tavneet Suri, an associate professor of applied economics at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and an expert on development in sub-Saharan Africa. Her research has shown that access to mobile-phone-based money transfers lifted 2 percent of Kenya’s population out of extreme poverty, increasing people’s savings and ability to withstand financial crises.
To help more people realize those kinds of gains across Africa and South Asia, Bose will have to navigate regulations and logistical hurdles and persuade skeptical investors and potential partners that a different business model can work. He says, “One of the things my dad used to say always comes back to me in these discussions: ‘It takes more creativity and innovation to market a new invention than it did to invent it in the first place.’”
His father knew a thing or two about innovation. Amar Bose, an MIT professor of electrical engineering and computer science (EECS) for 45 years, founded Bose Corporation, the Framingham-based maker of speakers, noise-canceling headphones, and acoustics equipment.
Like his father, Vanu Bose received three EECS degrees at MIT. And for a while, he thought he would become a professor, too. But helping the elder Bose with a research paper on a proposed modification to FM radio broadcasting had gotten him interested in wireless technology as an undergrad. And then the entrepreneurial leanings of fellow students got him thinking about starting his own company. One evening toward the end of grad school, he realized that when people asked about his plans, he mostly talked about the startup he was going to launch rather than all the faculty jobs he had been applying for. “It was a moment of clarity,” he says.
The next morning, Edward Crawley, then head of MIT’s aero-astro department, called to offer him an interview for a faculty position. “I told him, ‘Ed, thank you very much, this is a great opportunity, but I’ve decided to go start a company.’ I hung up the phone and said, ‘Oh my God, what have I done?’” Bose recalls. “I just pushed myself off the cliff.”
Soon after, he launched Vanu to commercialize the “virtual radio” technology he’d developed for his PhD: a wireless communication system that uses software to handle signal processing and other core tasks traditionally performed by hardware.
“Coming out of MIT, the technology wasn’t ready for prime time,” he says. So for six years, government contract work helped pay for needed R&D. In 2004, the company entered its second phase by launching its first commercial product, a software-defined radio system that would work for both GSM and CDMA (the two primary kinds of mobile-phone networks, which are based on different technologies). His customers—small rural carriers that provided roaming service for big carriers like Verizon—could double their revenue by using a single station to connect to both GSM and CDMA networks.
But then the 2008 recession hit. “Nobody bought anything for two years, and we had to do a 50 percent layoff,” Bose says. “The company almost disappeared.” Forced to retool their strategy, Bose and his team considered all the market segments that the big players ignored—ships, tunnels, areas inside buildings, and rural places, which represented the biggest opportunity by far. Vanu focused first on the tens of millions of rural Americans who lack broadband access: in 2013 he launched CoverageCo, a subsidiary that now has about 150 sites in Vermont. Three years later, Vanu was operating in Rwanda.
“Even though it’s the same company, I feel like I’m on my third startup,” he says of Vanu’s push to connect the uncovered billion from Africa to Alaska. “This one is the most fun by a long shot.”
Today, the man who once turned down an MIT faculty interview finds himself interviewing MIT professors every year. In 2014, MIT created the Professor Amar G. Bose Research Grants program to honor his father, who died in 2013, and to support faculty researchers pursuing bold ideas for which conventional funding would be hard to find.
Amar Bose famously branched out from his work in acoustics to explore areas that simply fascinated him, like cold fusion and car suspensions. “That’s part of the motivation—wanting to continue that spirit of exploration,” Bose says. So the grants fund a wide range of scientists, including biologists, earth and planetary scientists, and electrical engineers. “They may have nothing else in common, but there’s this common bond of being pioneering, having an insatiable curiosity about the world,” he says.
Bose’s face lights up as he talks about these pathbreaking MIT researchers and his father’s legacy. But as he forges ahead with his venture to color in the blank spots on the map of global connectivity, his words could as readily describe himself.