Brazilian-founded and Switzerland-based BroadLights is on a mission to bring affordable wireless connectivity to the most vulnerable communities in the world.
It is mostly funding this massive task through the replacement of legacy public lighting lamps with LEDs while re-investing a substantial part of the electricity budget being saved in WiFi infrastructure and bandwidth. Doesn’t sound like your average startup? Neither does their story.
Marcelo Garcia could well have met his co-founder Laurent Vieira de Mello back in 2002 in East Timor. Marcelo was possibly the first tourist travelling to the country when it had just become independent and was just a few days old. He planned to knock on the door of Laurent’s dad Sérgio – who was running the country as the UN Transitional Administrator at the time – but eventually decided not to. “I thought about going to the government palace to have a beer with him (we were both born in Rio) and changed my mind out of respect for the incredible work he did there and how busy he probably was”, Marcelo remembers from the trip 15 years ago. A few months later, Sérgio was killed in the 2003 UN Baghdad bombing and Marcelo learned the hard way never again to miss the opportunity to meet an amazing person when given a fleeting chance. Despite that, it was a trip to remember.
“I rented a wreck of a car, almost drove it into an unmarked bomb crater straight into the sea, went scuba diving with a mercenary psychopath as my buddy, followed by jogging in a landmine field by accident. I still managed to leave the country unscathed. “
“I rented a wreck of a car, almost drove it into an unmarked bomb crater straight into the sea, went scuba diving with a mercenary psychopath as my buddy, followed by jogging in a landmine field by accident. I still managed to leave the country unscathed. As a bonus, I did manage to have beers and chill with the Brazilian platoon during Saturday’s samba night at the Portuguese battalion, while Bangladeshi peacekeepers stared in disbelief.”
Marcelo is not your average backpacker. As well as East Timor, he’s travelled to Afghanistan, Yemen, Eritrea, Libya, Iraq and a few other less fortunate places on this planet.
When the Syrian refugee crisis became unsustainable in early 2016, he travelled to the border of the country and crossed most of Turkey along the refugee route to Europe – getting shot at by the Turkish army while visiting a tourist site and drinking tea with the very same soldiers afterwards at their barracks when they realised he was not an enemy combatant. “The tea was just as bad as their aim and didn’t even come with biscuits.” In a way this “Week as a Refugee” project led to him meeting his co-founder Laurent almost a year later.
After the Syria trip, he gave many speeches at smaller and larger conferences about refugee-related topics. In November 2016 – on the day when it became clear that Donald Trump had won the US election – Laurent was listening to Marcelo speaking at TEDxGeneva about Refugee Connectivity and came to congratulate him after his speech. The two Euro-Brazilians clicked almost immediately. “It was abundantly obvious that we were going to do something together. In this 15-minute chat, we started discussing how he could contribute to BroadLights and we arranged to meet again soon to discuss what his participation would be,” Marcelo says. Marcelo had worked on the BroadLights concept for quite a while until that point. Laurent brought to the table his strong technical background in Aeronautics, where he was involved in the installation of top-notch WiFi on planes, not to mention his extensive previous background in the Energy industry. “Crazy coincidence or perhaps a message from the universe”, Marcelo says. And not just that, Laurent soon had more free time on his hands to formally join as a co-founder.
The idea for BroadLights was born in September 2015 in Paris during a Smart City Expo, where Marcelo saw a presentation about Public Lighting LED swaps in expensive Copenhagen. Until this point, he had worked for most of his life in the Telecom sector and had just finished a stint as the CEO of a Bitcoin startup – raising millions of euros of VC capital for them but quickly stepping aside after the financing round. “I wanted to get back to my core Telco roots and make a proper long-term social impact”, he describes. Telecom runs in his veins. Marcelo’s grandfather was a telegraph operator with the Brazilian Navy in the 1910s and founded the first news radio in Rio de Janeiro in 1935. Marcelo’s dad was a trainee at the same radio station and soon after opened a TV broadcast business. “We’ve been a Telco family for a century, across three generations, and a Digital Divide focus was the natural extension of it. It is somehow my life’s path giving me a very strong sense of purpose. Add tech skills. Add extensive network. Equals massive impact potential”, Marcelo describes.
A modest inheritance from his dad gave him time to bootstrap the BroadLights concept full time – a challenge too big to do properly while still in a CO role or consulting job. By the time Laurent joined, the idea was solid and ready to take off. Marcelo had spent more than a year pitching the concept in multiple global forums and gathered significant traction and senior-level support while bootstrapping. The two are currently working with a number of volunteers to spread the word and launch multiple projects around the world. There are only a few natural enemies to their mission. “The only folks who perhaps may dislike us are those making money by peddling diesel to poor people – but that’s a fight worth having”, Marcelo says. “Even the local telcos should eventually love us after a bit of dating, because we will become their largest customers – buying bandwidth in bulk while prepping future GSM data customers by giving them affordable basic connectivity and access to new economic opportunities to afford MNO plans in the future.”
The core of BroadLights is a non-profit NGO, but it’s also a fast-growing platform for the future. When enough sites are established, a whole heap of value-added-services can be brought on board to capitalise on the affordable connectivity in regions of the world barely touched by potential competitors. “BroadLights will soon be established as a non-profit foundation, which will own 50%+ of a for-profit daughter company – where we can take equity in other ventures, raise funds, etc. It’s a bit like the Mozilla model: do good, build a market, make money”, Marcelo wraps the vision.
The closest comparison to BroadLights is Facebook with its Internet. org vehicle. However, BroadLights focuses first and foremost on the 92 countries of unohrlls.org (“the poor half of the UN”), which represent 1.1 billion people. Other vulnerable communities catered for are indigenous tribes (150 million people) and Refugee/IDP Camps (65 million people) – because they can be assimilated to a Least Developed Country (minus the sovereignty).
“When people compare us to Zuckerberg’s Internet.org, I reply that BroadLights is focused on “zucker-free zones” – he goes for massive markets to get his future growth rates, while we tackle the poorest and most vulnerable places in the planet where ad clicks are not worth much”, Marcelo said.
Internet.org is a Facebook-led initiative (but it also involves Samsung, Ericsson, Nokia, Opera, Mediatek and Qualcomm) that aims to bring cheap access to a number of internet services to less-developed countries. The Free Basics offering has hit some controversies and Facebook pulled it from India in February last year. “I have nothing intrinsically against Internet.org, with its typical tech giant, plain vanilla, world domination approach, but what we do aims to be self-sustainable financially via the long term LED swap concession deals – new hotspots get installed when there’s enough money in the till, so the network grows organically without incurring debt and even accelerates once the LED swap payback period is over”, Marcelo describes.
“When people compare us to Zuckerberg’s Internet.org, I reply that BroadLights is focused on “zucker-free zones” – he goes for massive markets to get his future growth rates, while we tackle the poorest and most vulnerable places in the planet where ad clicks are not worth much.”
“From a vulnerable community’s perspective it’s clearly better having them around than nothing and as we do not act in the same space, at least initially, we would be delighted to collaborate down the line with Facebook, Google and others in this sector – especially when BroadLights scales massively and those partnerships become self-evident.” Marcelo has cracked the “Free WiFi” sector of the telecom market before without investing any capital. In Belgium, he managed to launch a large-scale network in 2013 with 250,000 hotspots at zero cost to the internet service provider (they now have 1.4 million hotspots). Customers paid for the modems and a free backend was negotiated with the supplier, because they had never deployed one of those before. “A quarter of a million hotspots deployed with zero Capex – I was astonished with that outcome and wondered from then on how to find an equivalent model applicable to the poorest countries in the world, where connectivity is needed the most – BroadLights is the answer.”
As one of the first projects on the ground, BroadLights is working with NetRocinha.com – a grassroots initiative that already has 1,500 customers in the largest slum in Brazil (250,000 inhabitants) and delivers 100 Mbps “Fibre to the shack” links when people in the wealthier areas of town like Ipanema still struggle to get a flaky 15 Mbps connection. The biggest challenge ahead for BroadLights is to grow exponentially – to go from tactical actions, like supporting the NetRocinha expansion to other slums, to establishing a global strategic footprint of BroadLights-operated pilot projects that may be outsourced in some cases (e.g. satellite internet in remote areas).