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April 22, 2013

Sierra Club India: Off-Grid Solar Wi-Fi

Omc_photo_india_grid_498pxIt'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 Air Jaldi which provides Wi-Fi for the rural masses, and it just so happens to be solar powered.

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

In defiance of the out-dated axiom that fossil fuels are cheap, Air Jaldi made the move because it realized the cost of maintaining the alternative to solar -- the grid with backup diesel or batteries -- was just too costly. Often workers 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 imposed, were eliminated by solar.

The move to solar also allowed Air Jaldi to focus on its core operations, which are relatively simple: It  buys wholesale bandwidth which is distributed through economic Wi-Fi relays that optimize traffic without degrading the users' experience.  In other words, it sells Internet access.

Omc_photo_mpp_498pxHere'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. Air Jaldi mounts relays on small towers that receive a signal from other relays or a main distribution point. Those relays send the signal to Air Jaldi'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 kilowatt or more) so the economics are slightly different. But in about a month, Air Jaldi will convert its first center to solar. It expects 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, Jaldi'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 thecompany wants that to change.

Just as off-grid clean energy entrepreneurs are demanding social bankability, Air Jaldi 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 one 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 that Indian officials are trying to follow Finland's lead. The bad news is they are not investing enough, and corruption remains a monumental problem. That's because, just as with 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 its most 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. Air Jaldi 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). But by no means will they be the last. Here's to the little guys shaking things up and making a big difference.

-- Justin Guay, Sierra Club International

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