August 2, 2006 4:00 AM PDT

Closing the digital divide with solar Wi-Fi

Bruce Baikie and Marc Pomerleau are putting an earth-friendly spin on wireless networks.

Their nonprofit organization, Green Wi-Fi, is trying to bring Internet access to schools in developing countries via cheap, solar-powered Wi-Fi networks. The newly formed venture came out of a wish to which many parents can relate: showing their kids there's more to life than the daily grind of corporate politics.

"When you have children, you start really thinking about what you want to tell them that you do with your life," Pomerleau said.

Pomerleau, who until recently was a member of the marketing team for Sun's identity management products, quit his day job to focus on Green Wi-Fi, the nonprofit he started with Baikie, who kept his own day job at Sun.

The technical concept behind the Green Wi-Fi network is fairly simple. Each node in the network consists of a battery-powered router and a solar panel to charge the battery. The nodes are mounted on rooftops, and the network's Wi-Fi signals are transferred over a grid using a wireless network standard known as 802.11b/g.

The first seed money has arrived, enough to produce and test prototype nodes. It came from the One Laptop Per Child initiative (OLPC), which aims to construct a $100 laptop to be distributed to children in developing countries. OLPC showed immediate interest in the Wi-Fi initiative, Pomerleau said.

"We've heard that the strongest criticism they get when they evangelize their laptop is 'What do you do about the network?' If you have a computer but no Internet, you can play games and do spreadsheets, but accessing the world's information is really where the value is."

Green Wi-Fi

The two men decided that Wi-Fi technology would make the most sense, since it is standardized, relatively inexpensive and simple to deploy. The trick to operating a Wi-Fi system in many developing countries is to find a consistent source of electrical power. But while billions of people don't have reliable electricity, most of the developing world doesn't lack sunlight.

One of Baikie and Pomerleau's main challenges was to develop a solar-powered system that would function under variable weather conditions. A commercial solar-based system can run for as long as a week without incoming light. A monsoon season in India or a rainy season in the tropics, however, can last for a month.

Elegant degradation
The developed-world response might be to get a larger battery and a bigger solar panel to charge it, but that increases the cost. Baikie and Pomerleau set their cost ceiling at $200 dollars per node and went for a solution they call "elegant degradation."

"What we bring to the table is an intelligent charge-controller. We put the router on a diet," Pomerleau said. The controller sits between the battery and the router and regulates power to the router depending on the charge level of the battery and the amount of incoming sunlight.

CONTINUED: Testing a prototype…
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If they can't get reliable electricity, why should you expect that there would be any sort of a reliable wi-fi signal?

It's great that they have put together a solar powered network, wouldn't mind one my self.

This would be more practical to market it to either emergancy responders as a relable network when power is out or to consumers who want a "green" solution for their home or business.
Posted by startiger (50 comments )
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why not?
Why wouldn't they have a reliable signal? And the point is not to build bullet proof internet access (heck, I don't have that in metro Detroit), but to bring access to places and people who have none. Are they going to benefit from an signal even if it isn't 100% reliable? Of course.
Posted by skeptik (590 comments )
Link Flag
No powerlines involved in WiFi
Electricity must be carried by cable unless there's a world changing Tesla device that's not made the news.

WiFi routers running of solar energy are only suseptable to cloudy days beyond the charge of there battery.

WiFi is also not a line of sight signal. You don't have to see from one tower to another as long as the signal can travel through whatever materials are inbetween.
Posted by jabbotts (492 comments )
Link Flag
digital divide
how about closing the digital divide here, in the USA. I live in Central Illinoise. We have analog digital TV, no broadband modems, they come with Digital Cable. Dial up internet connections, and Satalite. Satalite with its latency is not a whole lot better than dial up for most things. It helps with larger downloads but no help at all with uploads. It seems to me if you give a child in school the knowledge to use the internet it should be available. When he needs to use it for information in the real world and work. If we solve the problems for broad band here, in the USA in such places as Central Illinoise and 90 percent of the rest of the country who have no other options but dial up and satalite. We could solve it in the third world countries too. Living in the very small town I live in has its advantages and disadvantages. The digital divide is here, in America. AT&T has no plans for the little towns and villages because there just isn't enough people to justify it. A remote town of under 15000 has little chance for a connection better than dial up.
Posted by Paninteas (18 comments )
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move to Utah
Move from "Illinoise" to Utah. Small towns there have a fiber system called UTOPIA.
Posted by Jackson Cracker (272 comments )
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Satellite Etc
Whilst I can understand the frustration of satellite technology, may I suggest you find another provider that will give you 2 way satellite communication. I used one for a while when I was involved in a wireless community and found download speeds of say a 600 meg file in 2 seconds fast enough. Alright, latency for gaming is a no brainer but 7 milliseconds for web pages to load and email is quick enough for most cases. Uploading at half a meg was quick enough too. There are answers out there you just have to know where to look! You need 2 way satellite communication, I still have my dish on the house no longer in use but evidence I at least had it for a while!...Best of luck if you decide to go with something!
Posted by crossplot (1 comment )
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Thats not the problem
Solar Powered WiFi might seem like a good idea but its not really. Ive lived most of my life in developing countries. The problem is mainly the availability of Internet connections. Most developing countries have no fibre optic links and rely on expensive VSAT links with limited capacities.
Sure, we have wireless long range products such as Alvarion's and Motorola Canopy's but the underlying problem is the initial set up costs for schools as well as the monthly costs.
Posted by Max Bulconer (4 comments )
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Sounds as useful as a solar powered flashlight
Just what they need in developing countries. As if the internet is important in countries with a corrupt military, police force and legal system and without reliable electricity, clean water, proper sanitation and adequate housing. Mostly kids in this country use the internet to find porn, steal music, and instant message each other with bad spelling and bad grammar. The whole idea of wi-fi for the third world shows the incredible ignorance of what those people need. It's also the perfect liberal program: do something that makes you feel good but is absolutely useless.
Posted by lingsun (482 comments )
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