What if you could call friends and family near and far with no charges? What if you could know for certain that your phone network was not inherently bugged by the government (you'd be quite happy if you were living in Egypt)? What if the government decided to take the phone system down (not that something like that would ever happen) but you could put your own service back up in its place? What if your development agency could be equipped to respond to disasters and provide limited phone network coverage for the stricken area?
While I'm not so sure about all the legalities, these possibilities are more than on the horizon as can be seen in Dili, East Timor. Village Telco has taken their "mobile potatoes" to Dili and, from what I can see, have created a system that could be replicated most anywhere in the developing world. Erik Hersman of Ushahidi and White African offers his take here. Check out Village Telco's one minute video on YouTube
Taking a slightly different approach, Serval, in Australia is testing another way that would link phones, supplemented by transmitters, together and whose service could be loaded as an app on any Android phone. As well, news came out today that Alcatel Lucent has developed a new technology that allows mobile phone services base stations to be reduced to the size of a golf ball and deployed almost anywhere in the world!
So, start dreaming about what you would do if you were in control of your telecommunications rather living at the whim of the big telecommunications companies- it may happen one of these days and possibly sooner rather than later!
Just found another group working on ways to provide mesh wireless phone networks- Commotion Wireless
Here's a low cost/open approach to providing GSM cell phone service: Open BTS