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Solar Wi-Fi To Bring Net to Developing Countries 162

JLavezzo writes "TreeHugger.com has an article today on a new wifi development organization: MIT and the UN have teamed up to provide kids living in the world's least developed nations $100 laptops, their 2 watts of juice provided by hand or foot crank. Cool, but - and this was one of Bill Gates' criticisms - what's a computer without internet access? Enter Green Wi-Fi, a non-profit that seeks to provide 'last mile internet access with nothing more than a single broadband internet connection, rooftops and the sun.' Their wi-fi access nodes, which consist of a small solar panel, a heavy-duty battery, and a router, can be linked together to extend one internet connection into a larger network. The two guys who started the company - Bruce Baikie and Marc Pomerleau - happen to be veterans of Sun Microsystems. Deployment is set to start in India at the end of this summer."
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Solar Wi-Fi To Bring Net to Developing Countries

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  • by bcat24 ( 914105 ) on Thursday August 03, 2006 @08:55PM (#15843859) Homepage Journal
    If they already have problems with power, etc., how will they get a broadband Internet connection? I guess you could use WDS or something to extend the range, but I don't think that's a very practical solution.
  • by Shihar ( 153932 ) on Thursday August 03, 2006 @09:08PM (#15843907)
    The complaints are coming, so let me just preempt them. Yes, money should be spent on feeding people. Yes, they need food, water, and medical care first and foremost. The problem is that the basic necessities of life are not enough.

    The rich nations of the world could divert massive portions of their GDP to feed the impoverished world. Even if you could political find the will to do this, it would solve nothing. Poverty is a symptom of a much larger problem. The core of the problem lies in education. If they can be educated, they can save themselves. Hence, things like cheap Wi-fi while certainly is not a silver bullet, it at least begins to pick away at the problem.

    Education is the key. With education and access to information other problems can start be solved. Good democratic governance absolutely demands an education population that is able to vote outside of tribal ties. Educated leaders are need to tackle both social and economic problems, and not just in government, but in business as well. The core of a functional democratic government is an educated population. We can feed the impoverished nations of the world from now until the end of time, but until educated leaders step up they will remain impoverished.

    So yes to those that will surely complain about this "waste" of money, these people need food and clean water. Food and water is not the cure though. Education, information, a fiscal boost once good governance is in place are the solution. Throwing money at the worlds poor just to feed them is like pumping blood into a man with a severed artery; the problem isn't that he is running out of blood, the problem is that he has a severed artery.
  • by transporter_ii ( 986545 ) on Thursday August 03, 2006 @09:14PM (#15843928) Homepage
    I wish them luck. In my opinion, using wi-fi for this application is really pushing a technology way past what it was actually designed for. There are so many points of failure and a lot of equipment that comes so close to working perfectly...yet fails for unknown reasons. There are issues with bandwidth and interference from the limited channels (maybe over there with no FCC, they can one-up us on that one?).

    I was talking to someone who has also deployed wi-fi just the other day. His honest opinion of his equipment was that the companies selling wi-fi seem to be more interested in selling a lot of equipment than they were in spending the time to develop solid equipment that actually worked and worked solidly.

    Of course, I smell MESH networks, and nothing sounds cooler than a wireless MESH network...but in my experience, there is also a lot hype there that also falls flat when you actually try and deploy it.

    Of course, some of our problems have resulted in some crappy boards we were sold, but even if they were working 100%, I'm still less than impressed with wi-fi on a large scale like that.

  • Re:So (Score:4, Insightful)

    by SIGALRM ( 784769 ) on Thursday August 03, 2006 @09:16PM (#15843936) Journal
    They're jusr repeaters that run on solar energy ...
    True, but it's beauty is it's simplicity. Remember Teledesic [teledesic.com]? A low-earth-orbital (LEO) sattelite system capable of bringing internet access to the world through "spread-slotted Aloha" algorithms, etc. Even McCaw, Gates and al-Talwaleed's big money couldn't produce results, and Teledesic is (by all accounts) a dead idea.

    So, I tend to like seeing these "brick-and-mortar"--and workable--solutions actually come to market.
  • by Alien Being ( 18488 ) on Thursday August 03, 2006 @09:18PM (#15843945)
    "One laptop per kid" isn't necessary. Even if there's only a single connected computer in the whole village, it will vastly expand their horizons.

    One of the great tragedies of poor countries is that a little knowledge could help them make much better use of their limited resources. If I couldn't afford a pair of shoes, I'd google for information about making some... if I had access to the Net.

  • by NotQuiteReal ( 608241 ) on Thursday August 03, 2006 @09:23PM (#15843959) Journal
    But someone mentioned to me a thought expressed in some TV show or another (West Wing?), that what poor third world countries need are roads. That kind of struck me as having "the ring of truth" about it.

    Rule of law and basic economic freedom seem to provide the best means out of poverty, every time it is implemented, and roads might help that effort along.

    I know building the Interstate Highway system in the USA seems to have done wonders in a country that was doing well anyhow, but how about it? Aren't roads high tech enough to be sexy?

    After all, how do you deliver X (medicine, water purifiers, food, laptops and WiFi set-ups) without roads?

    On the other hand, the cynical side of me thinks... if you put solar powered anything that might have any other use... it will get stolen.

    Maybe you really do need "rule of law" first.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday August 03, 2006 @09:28PM (#15843979)
    I'm going to play Devil's Advocate. I turned out fine by learning from books. Not that I'm jealous, but how many MORE books could you provide with 100 dollars? I'm not talking science and math, but also cultural books. Let them learn about the world rather than post to MySpace. In the right hands the Internet is a useful tool, sure, but 99.999% of the shit on here is just that, shit. Lookit the aforementioned MySpace. There's popups, viruses, and advertising. This is a novel idea, sure, but at best that's al it is.

    Now I'm completely out of touch with their song here. When I worked behind the scenes years ago alongside a bunch of salesmen, the mantra was "It isn't selling, it's telling the customer about our stuff so they can choose. If we don't tell them, we're deciding for them." I can understand the viewpoint of "Oh they need the Internet because everyone else has it." but do they really really need it? Especially at school?

    In my experience, having more recently worked in IT for a school district, giving kids access to computers was simply a distraction. Like that "Oo, shiny thing!" syndrome. So we started locking down on the access they had. Internet was supervised by teachers for research on class topics only, Word was accessible for writing reports if kids didn't have a PC (or more commonly, had one that only ran Windows 3.1) and there were classes to familiarize them with more of the typical office tools, spreadsheets, etc, particularly in business classes. Email was used some times for kids to turn in homework, but email access was typically restricted to high school (partially because of IT budget restraints at the time.)

    There was a structure in place to show kids how to utilize the computer world as a tool. This just sounds like, *flick of a switch* "Here you go! Wireless Internet!" in places that probably would benefit just as well from education through more "traditional" methods.

    Or maybe I'm just naive.
  • Isnt going to help (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Venim ( 846130 ) on Thursday August 03, 2006 @09:32PM (#15843990)
    Unfortunately as many people have pointed out, most people in these impoverished countries have very little knowledge of modern electronics let alone electricity. Why would they spend $100 on a laptop instead of something they could use such as food? If they give people these laptops chances are they will sell them to try and get food. In the end, we could be better spending this research money on food. Get the picture :)?
  • by apflwr3 ( 974301 ) on Thursday August 03, 2006 @09:32PM (#15843993)
    I find it hard to believe that you made it to a country as remote as Malawi without travelling through areas that had roads, buildings, plumbing and power-- but the inhabitants live in such poverty that access to a computer is an impossible dream and the best job they could hope for is a Nike sweatshop. This program is for them-- the parts of the "Third World" that are 50 years behind, not 500.
  • by Kaktrot ( 962696 ) on Thursday August 03, 2006 @09:59PM (#15844096)
    Solar cells are really bitchin', but it takes a very long time to make your money back or save money on electricity equal to the initial cost of the units, which is rather prohibitive for most people. Small applications, like these little repeater/router stations is on an entirely different scale than powering one's home. If this weren't so, the simple economics of it would probably see cells installed on all new homes. Not the best link, but the best one I could find in two minutes: http://www.technologyreview.com/read_article.aspx? id=16736&ch=biztech [technologyreview.com]
  • by grcumb ( 781340 ) on Thursday August 03, 2006 @11:05PM (#15844309) Homepage Journal
    "A $100 dollars for a laptop could provide medical care for a family of four for a year in many third-world countries. Which would you rather have?"

    Both. Now quit offering these simplistic and narrow-minded false alternatives.

    Did it ever occur to you that in order to deliver aid, people might need communications capability? Or that the vast majority of people are not dying of being poor, they're living with it. This means that if they're going to improve their lot - and everyone on the face of this earth has that right - they might need access to information in order to do so?

  • by Almahtar ( 991773 ) on Thursday August 03, 2006 @11:23PM (#15844368) Journal
    Just because a country is poor doesn't mean its residents are all starving and foolish. There will be plenty of people that will realize that their childrens' futures rest in education, and that these machines are keys to that door. There will be plenty of parents that would sooner starve than relinquish that. It's a typical middle to upper class misconception that everyone in a less developed country is either starving or ignorant or both, and that's really not the case.
  • by An Onerous Coward ( 222037 ) on Friday August 04, 2006 @12:11AM (#15844532) Homepage
    We could divert a major fraction of our GDP to feeding the billion starving people in the world. But we don't. The U.S. government spends less on development aid than its citizens spend on pornography. Worse, we spend waaaay more subsidizing our own agricultural industries, in order to protect them from competing with millions of slightly-better-than-subsistence farmers.

    Also, I consider the whole "good governance" mantra a cop-out. Yes, there are many corrupt countries to point to. But even the countries with good leadership are hamstrung by payments on old debts and irrational demands by the IMF. Too often, the cycle goes like this: the old regime is thrown out, replaced by someone who wants to make life better for a country. But to do that, they need money, because a government without money is just a bunch of people sitting around wearing poofy wigs. The IMF offers them a loan, which they really can't afford to pass up. But in order to get the loan, the IMF demands that they do things that will lead them to the Holy Grail of Economic Development: capital investment. The measures for attracting investment are simple, yet cruel: balance their budgets, privatize state-run institutions, and remove any restrictions on the flow of goods and capital into their country.

    Balancing the budget means cutting back on expensive programs that provide for the poor, the elderly, and the unemployed. Liberalized trade means that while people get cheaper goods, the gain comes at the cost of jobs, as the market wrings out the "inefficient" producers. Liberalized capital controls means that investment money pours into the country when times are good (causing inflation), and flees at the first sign of trouble. The newly privatized industries have meanwhile fallen into the hands of foreign investors, who frankly don't care if the industries are serving the needs of the country, so long as they're delivering 22% a year.

    The people look at the massive unemployment and the piecemeal sale of their country to foreigners, and they don't see good governance. Quite the opposite. So they throw the bums out, and the IMF just shakes its head and mutters about how sad it is that so many countries have such a shortage of good leadership.

    Compare those outcomes with the Asian economies, which are growing rapidly while steadfastly ignoring the IMF's advice and rejecting their loans.

  • by NerveGas ( 168686 ) on Friday August 04, 2006 @12:41AM (#15844646)
    This technology can help people escape poverty. Not long ago, I listend to an interview about the cellular phone networks in... some African nation. One where there's enough violence that the cellular companies won't go in there - the country built it itself. He talked about how much of a benefit it has had on the local economy - and not just because it gave the small, mom-and-pop shops run out of houses something (cell cards) to sell, but because it allowed rural farmers to find markets for their crops besides the (often dishonest) middlemen who came to them. It's benefiting the rich, yes, but the poor are benefiting more.

    I think that this might just work along those lines as well.
  • by 70Bang ( 805280 ) on Friday August 04, 2006 @01:17AM (#15844752)
    Read everything before mod-ding me down -- there's some germane material which won't make the cut-off...

    How do you propose the family of four get medical care for a year be distributed (and used by the proper recipients)?

    You have control of the resources before it reaches TPTB (The Powers That Be). Once it's there, however, all bets are off.

    Here's an example:

    You see people panhandling for money. Offer to take them in the nearest restaurant. Give management enough money...with the understanding it can only be used for the person in question and anything left over goes in the tip jar. The person you're helping is polite (if you're lucky) but refuses.

    Does this mean:

    1) They aren't hungry and anticipate having enough the next time he's hungy?
    2) you've determined the reason they need the money is to buy some MD2020 (it's a wine -- Mad Dog 20/20 - you're better off to drink battery acid. I cannot imagine a hangover on it. Find some at a cheap-o liquor store try a little, and pitch it - it's an experiment -- not unlike a deep-friend twinkie or Snickers bar at a state fair. I buy whatever is new that year for a one-bite taste by tearing it off, passing the rest off to anyone else wanting a taste. If you are clueless about these deep-fried foods, consider yourself fortunate) or some other booze (or drug)?
    3) they need the money for something else - something positive? e.g., sick kid to the clinic?

    4) they really rake in the $$$ asking for money and have no reason to find a job.

    5) sitting there kills time vs. sitting in the library and doing nothing.

    6) ???

    You've got the money in hand. How do you decide how it's distributed and how much to give them? (I have a personal pattern|policy, but we won't worry about that right now)

    If you hand over the the funds, you have a good chance of believing it will be diverted. That's when the Time photo of Bono means squat. "Forgive the countries which can't pay their debts. It's crippling them trying to keep up." (read that: we're loan sharks) We clear the slate, they have nothing. We give them money, it goes the same place all of the other money has gone. Bono goes oh-fer by asking us to wipe the debts again. Fortunately, none of his money was diverted and he can continue to wear kool-yellow glasses.

    If we give them "clean water, a secure food supply, basic medicine, reasonable security...for a year", how do you prevent the hard goods from being sold to another group|country for $$$ or exchanged in some other fashion? Reasonable security? Right now, we're in a bad spot right now [1] -- although we have now have an exit policy [2] and have to intervene in how many other companies using a fleet of UN black helicopters? If it's a UN and not US issue, there's plenty of representation from the countries who are robbing their people blind and have already diverted all of the funds. I hear a One World Order being proposed by someone coming in from the side door.

    Lots of fine wishes, but it's not going to happen in the real world. Anyone for a video game? World Conquest & Domination? Wait. Something near to that was in Never Say Never Again.
    [1] A man goes to hell and is greeted by Satan who explains the rules: "I'm going to walk you through a long hallway of rooms. You'll be able to look inside and determine if you want to stay there for eternity [or not]. If you choose to pass but find everything after it is worse, you cannot return. Again, once you pass, you cannot return." They go to the first room and all of the surfaces are so hot people are doing everything they can to avoid contact - jumping off of the floor, wall, taking turns standing on each other, etc. "I'll pass. There's no way I could handle that for eternity." "Fine. But you cannot return if everything else is worse." They go to room #2. Everything must be very cold because the vapor from everyone's breath can be seen in the air and everyone
  • by fantomas ( 94850 ) on Friday August 04, 2006 @03:52AM (#15845106)
    Hey Green Wi-Fi people, if you're listening, I agree with the parent poster. How about you put the schematics for your designs online so we can all build these? Open Source philosophy and all that, the more of us building them the more eyes and hands to find improvements and bug fixing... I'm helping two community networks in the UK where they are really concerned about ecological issues and they've actually already asked me if they could power their roof top access points by solar energy. I think you could be the solution. Please could you put the designs online, creative commons them, so we can build some?

    Everybody loves the Ronja [slashdot.org] guy for putting his optical networking designs online....
  • by jotok ( 728554 ) on Friday August 04, 2006 @09:17AM (#15845880)
    For about the millionth time...these projects are not aimed at dirt poor countries, they are aimed at countries that already have some infrastructure.
  • by Deliveranc3 ( 629997 ) <deliverance AT level4 DOT org> on Friday August 04, 2006 @10:42AM (#15846378) Journal
    Textbook 1: Sex Ed.

              Chapter 1: Aids
                      a. You get Aids from having sex with someone who has AIDS.
                      b. You can't cure aids by having sex with a baby.

              Chapter 2: etc.

    Might be worth something

"Never give in. Never give in. Never. Never. Never." -- Winston Churchill