Where big communications companies have fallen short in spreading the reach of the Internet in Kyrgyzstan, a startup is picking up the slack.
A major landmark for connectivity was sealed in 2011, when Kyrgyzstan adopted 4G technology, opening up the prospect of reliable Internet access for customers living far from landline grids. Yet while the country’s soaring peaks and heavily rural features may hold appeal for visitors, they complicate the challenge of taking wireless Internet nationwide.
Erzhigit Imamov, a resident of Novopokrovka, a village 15 kilometers outside Bishkek, learned that first-hand when he looked into hooking up his computer using 4G. “In 2011, when local Internet provider Saima Telecom brought in 4G technology, I was one of the first to get a modem. But they warned me in the office that they could not guarantee a signal in my area,” Imamov told EurasiaNet.org.
He was not deterred. Imamov had been interested in technology ever since his schooldays, when he won several local competitions by creating computer programs. Later, he studied engineering. This problem of connectivity was just a new challenge. So instead of grumbling about bad service, Imamov searched for his own solution.
Gleaning tips from online forums, Imamov built a device that would boost signals from the nearest 4G signal transmission tower. His fix gave him the fastest Internet connection in the area. Eventually, relatives and acquaintances began turning to Imamov for help. But the most basic shop-bought repeater antennas never quite did the job, while the pricier ones were beyond people’s budget.
In February, Imamov turned his hobby into a startup and began producing his own antennas. He gathered a team of like-minded specialists who relocated en masse into his garage, which also became their new place of work.
A lot of help came through conversations on Skype with an engineer friend in Moscow — a military radio operator with 40 years of experience working with radio equipment. “I couldn’t find good specialists in Kyrgyzstan that could help with this problem,” Imamov said.
He created two antennas that could work with 4G and 3G signals. The first antenna operates at 2,600 MHz, and the other works in two bands — 1,800 MHz and 2,100 MHz. Early experiments brought Internet access to villages that had barely had it before.
Imamov’s group headed into mountainous regions afflicted by poor signals and offered to set up their antennas at cost of production. Villagers were amazed. “Why so cheap?” Imamov recalls them asking, to which the answer was: “Because they are locally made.” In the hilliest areas, masts up to 25 meters tall had to erected.
And then the orders began pouring in from all over the country. This summer, customers included Issyk-Kul holiday resorts that were eager to provide their guests with high-speed Internet.
Despite the surge of interest, there is no talk yet of going into mass production. “You have to install every detail with a jeweler’s precision. If you make a mistake of even a few hundredths of a millimeter, then you don’t get the right signal. So we cannot just turn out a hundred of these every day,” Imamov said.
Imamov said he operates according to the principle of “kaizen,” a Japanese term meaning gradual, incremental improvement and change. In practical terms, this means the warehouse is stocked with minimal inventory, just enough to complete open orders.
The efforts have come full circle and now Saima Telecom, whose limitations first spurred the innovation, is working with Imamov to help the company extend its penetration into remote areas. “Saima sends us their customers. They buy antennas to increase the spread of Internet in their area. And the service providers send our equipment to their dealers for installation,” Imamov said.
The economic realities of the market, however, limit the appeal of this kind of solution. Mobile phone operators, whose customers use online resources predominantly on their portable devices, see little appeal in Imamov’s business.
The plan for Imamov now is to move out of the garage and into more spacious and better-lit premises, where he and his team hope to start creating 800 MHz boosters, which would be even more suitable for Kyrgyzstan’s terrain and take 4G to yet wilder locations. Work is ongoing on a modem installed with an antenna that would connect to the network through a SIM card and create mini-WiFi hotspots.
These are still early days though. “We are at the initial stage of development with our startup and we are trying to develop working prototypes with minimal risk. As soon as we create an ideal, complete product, we will look for investors and expand the project,” he said.
There is great potential for growth, said Saima Telecom representative Daniyar Niyazbaev. “There is real demand. According to [the Internet Society, or ISOC], only around 25 percent [of people] in Kyrgyzstan have access to the Internet,” he said.
The importance of developing Internet capabilities to a nation’s prospects for prosperity barely needs explaining, and some of Kyrgyzstan’s politicians seem to be aware of that. At present, the country performs poorly in a UN index, known as IDI, which measures access, use and skills in information and communication technologies across the globe.
“All [Commonwealth of Independent States] countries remain below the developed-country average (7.20). With the exception of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, however, they are all above the global average of 4.77. While Kyrgyzstan lies above the developing-country average (3.84), Uzbekistan remains below,” the UN’s International Telecommunication Union said in a 2014 report.
In November, the Internet Society opened its Kyrgyzstan chapter and has already begun working on bringing rural communities and remote village schools online.
Imamov’s efforts are only part of the picture. Another initiative is being undertaken by Google. Speaking to Kloop.kg, Tilek Mamutov, a manager for special projects at Google and a native of Kyrgyzstan, outlined an unusual solution being devised to extend the reach of 4G networks: a flotilla of signal-bearing hot air balloons constantly hovering in the sky.
Imamov is not waiting around for that to happen though. “This is a very pressing problem, and not just in Kyrgyzstan, but in the whole Central Asian region. Our work has no end,” he said.
Aktan Rysaliev is a pseudonym for a journalist based in Almaty, Kazakhstan.