Our current centralized energy and financial systems often fail the poor. In order to meet the energy needs of people in less developed countries in a sustainable way, a distributed energy framework is necessary.
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 Networks, a company that provides solar-powered Wi-Fi for the rural masses.
AirJaldi designs, builds, and operates wireless networks spanning five different states in rural India. Just like the clean energy micro power plants that 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 unreliable. In the early days, the company used battery backups, but those proved expensive to maintain. Eventually, just like the telecom towers on which they were perched, AirJaldi switched to solar.
AirJaldi made the move because maintaining backup diesel or batteries was just too costly. Often, employees 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 AirJaldi to focus on core operations: buying wholesale bandwidth through distributed Wi-Fi relays that optimize traffic without degrading the user experience. In other words, it sells 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 is not. That’s because these are large systems (1 kilowatt or more) so the economics are slightly different. But in about a month, AirJaldi will convert its first center to solar. The company 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 as a joke (you can imagine Wi-Fi connections in rural India are usually anything but fast). Jokes aside, AirJaldi’s growth has indeed been fast. It now serves 600 enterprise clients with broadband connectivity, has three more networks in the works, and is pursuing new opportunities in Africa.
Right now, 70 percent of the company's 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 AirJaldi wants that to change.
Just as off-grid clean energy entrepreneurs are demanding social bankability to expand clean energy access, AirJaldi believes internet access is a right for every citizen and must be provided by fiat. 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.
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. Just like power production, the tendency is to put huge amounts of money into centralized projects, leading to rampant corruption and service delivery failure rates. At the same time, the telecom industry doesn’t want competition for internet, because it undermines one of their significant sources of income.
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 business formed by the convergence of off-grid mobile devices and distributed renewable energy. Here’s to the little guys shaking things up and making a big difference.
Justin Guay leads the Sierra Club's international program.