THE BLOG

Off-grid Solar Powered Wi-Fi

04/22/2013 01:39 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2013
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It's increasingly clear that our current centralized energy and financial systems fail the poor and as a result, a sustainable future is distributed. Already we're seeing entrepreneurs making this vision reality by leveraging off-grid mobile phone penetration to deliver distributed clean energy access. Now entrepreneurs are using that same off-grid infrastructure to deliver vital new services. The latest is AirJaldi who provides Wi-Fi for the rural masses and they just so happen to be solar powered.

AirJaldi designs, builds, and operates wireless networks spanning five different states in rural India. Just like the clean energy micro power plants OMC is building, AirJaldi's networks piggyback on rural telecom towers. These towers are located in areas where the grid is either non-existent or infrequent with voltage fluctuations that damage expensive equipment. In the early days they used battery backups that proved to be expensive to maintain. Eventually, just like the telecom towers on which they were perched, they switched to solar.

In defiance of the outdated axiom that fossil fuels are cheap, AirJaldi made the move because they realized the cost of maintaining the alternative to solar -- the grid with backup diesel or batteries was just too costly. Often they were forced to travel for four hours or more through the monsoon rains or other extreme weather events to take care of operations in an area where the grid failed. Maintenance trips like these, and the heavy costs they posed, were eliminated by solar.

The move to solar also allowed them to focus on their core operations which are relatively simple -- they buy wholesale bandwidth which is distributed through economic Wi-Fi relays that optimize traffic without degrading the users' experience. In other words they sell Internet access.

Here's how it works: Every client has a router (just like you or I have at home) that gets connectivity via the airwaves and bandwidth provided by the telecom companies. AirJaldi mounts relays on small towers that receive a signal from other relays or a main distribution point. Those relays send the signal to AirJaldi's clients. The main difference between our systems and theirs is the vast distance covered which requires stronger routers.

While nearly all relays are solar-powered the network operation center -- basically a server room to handle the traffic and optimize it -- is not. That's because these are large systems (1 kW or more) so the economics are slightly different. But in about a month AirJaldi will convert its first center to solar. They expect to convert more as the price of solar falls.

Ironically, jaldi is actually a Hindi word that means fast and according to company founders the name started almost as a joke. (As you can imagine Wi-Fi connections in rural India are mostly anything but.) Jokes aside AirJaldi's growth has been anything but. It now serves 600 enterprise clients with (relatively fast... ) broadband connectivity and has three more networks in the works in addition to opportunities in Africa.

Right now 70 percent of clients are nonprofits, schools, rural banks and other rural institutions. The other 30 percent are private clients who are largely middle class. That means the poor are still being left out -- but they want that to change.

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Just as off-grid clean energy entrepreneurs are demanding social bankability AirJaldi believes Internet access must be provided by fiat, by becoming a right of every citizen. As founder Michael Ginguld puts it, "We have come to expect and accept that electricity, water and roads are a given. Internet should be the same." He's got a good argument too. For every 10 percent increase in Internet access a country sees a 1 percent increase in GDP. Thus far the only country in the world to enshrine Internet access as a human right is Finland where courts and the state are obliged to provide access.

The good news is Indian officials are trying to follow their lead. The bad news is they are not investing enough and corruption remains a monumental problem. That's because just like power production, the tendency is to put huge amounts into large centralized projects which leads to rampant corruption and service delivery failure. At the same time the telecom industry doesn't want competition for Internet provision because it undermines one of their significant sources of income. That means yet again we have a broken system.

That's ultimately what this is about -- an opportunity to disrupt these broken systems dominated by entrenched incumbents and the politicians that serve them. AirJaldi is the latest example created by the convergence occurring between off-grid mobile phones, distributed renewable energy and the world of services previously off-limits to rural residents (Wi-Fi is just one, OMC is now providing electric bikes for instance ). By no means will they be the last. Here's to the little guys shaking things up and making a big difference.