Powering ICTs and the Internet in Hard-to-Reach Places
Firing up computers, communication systems, and the Internet on a desert island or deep in the jungle is technically a very simple matter. CNN and the US Military do it all the time. However, doing it in a way that is affordable and sustainable for the people who live on that island or in that jungle is of course another matter entirely.
USAID/EGAT/EIT Session on Energy and ICTs
On Wednesday, October 1st, over 40 professionals met at the USAID Ronald Reagan Building for a panel of informative presentations and discussions on this topic. The session was organized by USAID's Office of Energy and Information Technology in collaboration with Winrock International and Academy for Educational Development (AED), part of the DOT-COM Alliance/dot-ORG.
The panel was introduced by Patricia Flanagan of USAID/EGAT and Dennis Foote of dot-ORG/AED. Responses to the presentations were provided by Dennis Foote, as well as Griff Thompson and Anthony Meyer, Team Leaders of the Energy Team and the Information Technology Team of USAID's EGAT Bureau, respectively..
How to Use ICTs in Off-Grid Locations
The first panelist, Chris Rovero, Senior Program Officer in the Clean Energy Group (CEG) at Winrock International, explained that using ICTs in unelectrified or 'off-grid' locations (i.e. off the electricity grid). requires re-thinking conventional approaches to internet access, distance education and other rural ICT applications. Careful consideration must be given to the use of energy efficient equipment in order to ensure that off-grid power systems are as affordable as possible.
For example, Mr. Rovero illustrated that the solar energy system needed to power a typical Intel P4 desktop computer and CRT monitor for four hours a day would cost between $2,960 and $7,040, while the cost to power a notebook computer under the same circumstances would be only $240 to $800. Download Mr. Rovero's presentation Adobe PDF 307K.
Robert Foster, International Programs Manager for the Southwest Technology Development Institute at New Mexico State University, cautioned that education agencies often take their standard systems off grid without full consideration of the energy issues. Download Dr. Foster's presentation Adobe PDF 1MB.
"Off-Grid Friendly" ICT Equipment
Rebecca Mayer, Program Associate at Winrock International, noted that rural communications systems such as low-power VSATs and WiFi outdoor routers are increasingly "off-grid friendly" due to their low power consumption, whereas standard desktop computers are using ever greater amounts of power.
The use of energy-efficient IT devices such as handheld computers, notebooks, LCD monitors, ink jet printers, low-power desktops and thin clients can reduce ICT energy consumption for off-grid schools and telecenters by up to 85%.
Selection of energy-efficient ICT equipment is also useful in locations with intermittent power from diesel generators or unreliable grids, as it reduces the size and cost of backup battery banks. Download Ms. Mayer's presentation Adobe PDF 159K.
Key questions considered included ways to increase the effectiveness of USAID's IT and Energy programs through cross-sectoral collaboration, as well as the long-term implications of bringing access to ICTs and electricity services to rural areas.
Question: What about sustainability of these systems? How are business models being used to develop sustainability? And what are the emerging technologies for the future?
When using solar power as a power supply, for example, there needs to be a local infrastructure to install and maintain the system, otherwise the system is not sustainable. This fact is also true of information technology - a local industry is required to support the IT infrastructure.
Telecenters and internet cafes are hard to sustain by the public sector. Current growth is driven by private sector/local entrepreneurs.
One way to develop business plans is to look at aggregation of services. Where telecenters can offer voice telephone service, this tends to account for the majority of telecenter revenues, around 75 or 80%.
Comment: We are seeing a combination of energy, technology transfer, and information and communications technology. Energy central to everything - and there is a symbiotic relationship between energy and IT. Both of these are enabling technologies which make the other strategic objectives possible. For example, companies which are providing solar power systems used to provide mainly communications systems - and these smaller communications companies are moving into local power provision. In many ways, developing countries are leapfrogging technology (solar homes, low power IT, etc).
A major difference between energy and IT sectors are that while energy has established technology and legal standards which are generally consistant throughout the world, telecommunications exists in evolving (or in some cases severely lagging) legal environments, which vary from place to place.
Comment: In regard to new technology development, we should look at the points of entry - cell phones increased connectivity because of low power consumption. Cell phones increase communications access through community phones, text messaging, sim cards (one phone for multiple families). Cell phones still have limited range, but with additional antennas and the cooperation of the network operator, the range can be increased to cover rural areas on the periphery of network coverage.
We also need to look at using existing infrastructure in new ways - such as using a local cell tower to bypass the cell systems to go WiMax. WiMax refers to broadband wireless equipment that conforms to the emerging IEEE 802.16 standard. WiMax products are expected to be commercially available in the second half of 2004.
Question: What do we do with this technology?
We need to look at all development sectors and how energy and IT can contribute to all of them.
Example one, soil management can be undertaken using a handheld device to test soil quality to determine the amount of fertilizer the soil requires. The device/system is paid for through the increased yield/savings on fertilizer usage.
Example two, World Conservation Union uses a virtual university for conservation training.
Question: What about cooling costs for IT equipment?
If the equipment needs A/C, it is not feasible in unelectrified areas due to high power consumption rate. Some laptops can tolerate up to 140 degrees and thin clients also can deal with higher temperatures. Ruggedized laptops are very expensive but are designed to tolerate heat.
Copies of the presentations offered by the panel may be downloaded below.