Green WiFi has a simple goal: provide people with stable and reliable internet access from a renewable resource for developing nations. Many readers probably know that this sounds easier than it is. The thing is, Green WiFi has a solution that looks like it will work easily.
I spoke with Marc Pomerleau, one of the founders of Green WiFi, and we had a very interesting conversation talking about both the Green and WiFi part of Green WiFI. Their approach to providing internet access is novel in that it is simple, low-cost, and can be quickly setup.
Essentially, they’ve designed a system that uses a solar panel, a charge controller, a battery, and a generic router to create nodes that cost around $200. This system is comprised of stand-alone units that can talk to each other over a mesh network that can also heal itself. The system was designed primarily by Bruce Balkie, the other founder of Green WIFI, and the prototype node tested on his roof without a complete power loss.
Bruce and Marc were working at Sun Microsystems when the idea to use their knowledge to make the world better came to mind. They had always wanted to do something “with meaning” and they figured out what to do.
They were inspired by two projects, one was the OLPC, which “drew our attention,” according to Marc. The other project was Rwanda Telecom, which was recently purchased by Greg Wyler.
Greg noticed that, after buying the telecom, cheap and reliable power was the biggest hurdle to providing internet access. Similarly, the OLPC project has been criticized for forgetting that computers are the most useful when they are connected. These two problems got Brian and Marc thinking. If they could create a system that was self-powered and provided internet connectivity it help to solve Greg’s problem and the main criticism of the OLPC. It could help bridge the digital divide and empower new internet users.Bruce made sure that he did not take a “developed-world approach” to the problem by over-engineering it, or by just making the battery bigger and more expensive. Bruce took existing technology and used it to create a new technological tool. Of course, using stock parts helps them keep the cost of each node down.
There are a few things that makes Green WiFi so good. One is that the system is broken into nodes that communicate automatically with each other. All that is needed to setup a network is to have one node connected to a broadband access point then that node will self-discover other nodes and create a mesh network. Setting up the nodes is simple according to Marc, when asked if there is a user manual, he responded that if they make one it wouldn’t be longer than five pages.
Another element that allows for success of Green WiFi is that the solar panel provides enough power for the router by adjusting how much power the router can use. This allows for use in almost any situation including 27 consecutive cloudy days. When the sun is shinning the node is powering the router and charging the battery, with less sun the battery can be used. What’s more, the node can switch from open-access to closed-access to save power thanks to the charge controller.
The relative low cost of each node makes it a very strong contender for creating a common network. They are also designed to last a long time through all kinds of weather. Each node is a self-contained unit that requires no, or very little, maintenance with a life expectancy of 2-3 years.
One thing that telecentres can do is create a string of these nodes then split the broadband access thereby halving the cost of having a connection. Each telecentre can also choose who has access to their network.
Marc also acknowledges that these nodes can be used after a natural disaster. Since they self-discover each other it is easy to just drop them in an area, that way disaster crews (or whomever) will have internet access. Given the recent use of Google Earth to coordinate disaster rescue, the internet seems like a good thing to have.
Day-to-day application of the nodes is of course the element that is going to make or break Green WiFi. Marc has mentioned some creative ways to use the nodes, but my favourite way to use the nodes involves the ocean.
Seaweed, like most commodities, change in price frequently so it is key to sell at the right time. Seaweed farmers told Marc that they would love to have internet access on their boats so they can check commodities markets directly, instead of going through a middleman.
Marc has a lot of faith in people using the nodes in innovative and unexpected ways. He expects people to come up with ideas “now that they have the technology.” When I asked him what the future of Green WiFi he answered by telling me “we know something else is coming.”
Future development of Green WiFi will happen once they get they establish themselves a bit better. Green WiFi is still very young, Marc only started working full time on the project in June, but things are going very well. Despite having some trouble with finding a suitable venture capitalist, influential environmental organizations are looking into purchasing nodes for their work in remote areas.
In the immediate future, they will be pursuing ways to ensure their own sustainability and give presentation at conferences on their work, the next conference is the AirJaldi Summit this October In India, they are looking into expanding a trial run of their technology.
Marc and Bruce are “constantly getting ideas and solutions” for problems and new uses of their nodes. So one thing they know for sure about the future of Green WiFi is that the next step will be driven by demand from people on the ground. The whole process according to Marc is “very exciting and scary at the same time.”