When Solar Meets Wireless – A Rural Telecommunications Solution – Part 2

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Robert Ndlovu

Robert NdlovuThis guest post was written by Robert Ndlovu, an ICT consultant based in San Jose, California, USA. It is the second installment in a series of posts he is writing about rural telecommunication solutions. The first post can be found here. We’ll update this post with a link to the third and final post in the next few days.

Solar Powered Wireless Access

This is a viable avenue of implementing rural telephony in a bid to redress the knowledge and information gap between the urban and rural populations, amongst other things.

There’s no need to explain and expand the clear relationship that exists between information technology and development of a country. Access to information and communication on the fly, bridges the digital divide that generally engulfs the bulk of African countries. This is usually measured as teledensity: the number of connected phone users per 100 people.

Use of solar powered wireless equipment addresses two problems inherent in most developing countries – lack of reliable electricity from the national power grid and cost of laying copper. Solutions that can be solar powered remove power related obstacles in rolling out basic telephone services and even internet.

Solar and wireless technologies share a very unique element. They both bring something to a location where it would have been otherwise impossible to. Solar brings power and wireless brings data. So the combination of these produces something that everyone wants but can’t connect the dots – bringing internet and voice to remote location using solar energy. Bear in mind that the batteries can function for several days without sunlight.

Solar powered wireless access uses low wattage transmitters and receivers to send and receive radio signals regardless of the frequencies involved. Backhaul to backbone links also uses solar powered radios with up to 100 km range at 32Mb/s with line of site before repeating.

Solar Wireless Access Nodes presently available have enough battery capacity to run for several days without significant sunlight, and are fully remote monitored as long as there is a backhaul to the data network.

Naturally most people dismiss solar powered initiatives as very expensive because what they fail to realize is that once installed the system pays itself as long as the sun shines! Once deployed there is not much maintenance to be done on sun light! And if there is no sunshine it’s likely that there is wind so windmills can take over but that’s for another article.

Challenges and Opportunities

The two most basic services that technology can deliver to remote areas are: a dial tone and email.

These two should constitute a basic need for any nation developing their telecommunications. Availing solarpowered phones and internet access centers at business centers (Growth Points in Zimbabwe) is one sure way of availing basic communication means to the remotest parts of the country not covered by any GSM signals. This way even the remotest farmer in Wedza can send an email to a fertilizer supplier in Kwekwe for prices. The phone and internet center approach spreads the cost of ownership over a larger group of people.

Due to remoteness of the location, difficult terrain, hostile environments and dispersed population, laying of copper or fiber optics is not a cost effective solution to provide connectivity. As such there is no one single approach that will achieve the objective of bridging the digital divide. But an array of approaches using different technologies have to be invoked based on the local conditions. For instance solar powered equipment will fare better in Lupane than Nyanga. These are facts relevant to a specific geographic area. This is not a one size fits all solution.

A thorough and detailed site survey will establish if a particular technology will work for a certain community or not. The site survey must collect relevant data like weather patterns, temperature extremes, elevation, wind speeds, security, distance from interconnection, population density etc.

This approach provides a vehicle to implement say tele-medicine and other healthcare delivery services as well as agricultural education and extension services. Other services include distance learning and mass education programs.

This means that the local rural clinic, local police, school, shops have access to a dial tone and email within a reasonable walking distance. This means teachers based in remote areas are able to access resources that can aid their curriculum. This means that health workers can disseminate HIV/AIDs info at the click of a mouse.

But in Zimbabwe’s case like most African countries, we have farmers with the most fertile land that do not have access to information resources regarding commercial farming as a business. Most of the new farmers do not have access to an email address! Having phone and internet centers at the community centers and even growth points, will mean that not everyone in that area needs to buy his or her own computer to access basic communication services but can use the public access system. This by design eliminates the high computer cost being a major obstacle to development.

The next (and final) post in this series of posts will feature a test system in a rural business center setting.

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