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Less power to cell phones, more power to the people

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April 19, 2012

Researchers are developing innovative ways to keep smartphones powered-up in the developin...

Researchers are developing innovative ways to keep smartphones powered-up in the developing world (Photo: Shutterstock)

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Smart phones are techno wonders, and they are also energy guzzlers, which is not a problem for people living in the developed world. However, their high energy requirements has stymied the adoption of mobile internet services in developing countries where mobile internet can be a real lifeline to the rest of the world. In Africa, for example, few people can access the internet from a wired connection but 90 percent of the population lives in areas with mobile phone network coverage.

There’s one problem though. Access to the power grid in Africa is limited. Therefore, users have trouble recharging their phones. This paradoxical situation inspired researchers at Aalto University in Finland to design a network proxy that's claimed to cut power consumption of 3G smart phones by up to a cool 74 percent. The researchers say it serves as a middleman for mobile devices to connect to the internet and it handles the majority of the data transfer for the smart phone.

The case study conducted in 2011 at Aalto University focused on three East African countries: Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya. The researchers believe their optimized proxy solution could be easily deployed across a mobile network and in areas without reliable sources of electricity. They also point to mobile optimized websites, HTTP compression and more efficient use of data caching as potential ways of alleviating the problem.

Aalto University researchers are not alone in their quest to increase access to mobile technology outside the developed world. Recently, a British company called Eight19 announced a pay-as-you-go solution called IndiGo, which it is marketing as a personal electricity system for the developing world. A combination of solar energy and mobile phone technology, it allows users to light their homes and charge mobile phones as a service, paid for using scratch cards.

The IndiGo pay-as-you-go energy solution (Photo: Eight19)
The IndiGo pay-as-you-go energy solution (Photo: Eight19)

The IndiGo system consists of a low-cost solar panel, a battery unit with inbuilt mobile phone charger and a high efficiency light emitting diode (LED) lamp. Users put credit on their IndiGo device using a scratchcard, which is validated over SMS using a standard mobile phone. Following a September 2011 launch in Kenya, Eight19 announced in February it was taking its IndiGo to South Sudan.

About the Author
Antonio Pasolini Brazilian-Italian Antonio Pasolini graduated in journalism in Brazil before heading out to London for an MA in film and television studies. He fell in love with the city and spent 13 years there as a film reviewer before settling back in Brazil. Antonio's passion for green issues - and the outdoors - eventually got the best of him and since 2007 he's been writing about alternative energy, sustainability and new technology.   All articles by Antonio Pasolini
10 Comments

Why not add windpower to it?

Martin Brook
19th April, 2012 @ 03:18 am PDT

Actually, I have just recently run in to this problem.

My sister want to send her husband (who is from Tanzania, and still lives there.. shame immigration.. shame) some files, but he cannot access the file servers that I used to upload this data ( i helped her to do this thing)..

I think it *is* probably because everybody uses phone internet only.. she knows how to do stuff on her phone that scares me! but she is *no good* at using a computer ;-)

Anyone have any ideas?

Doc

sgdeluxedoc
19th April, 2012 @ 03:28 am PDT

Point one....ridiculous to say that mobile phones are energy guzzlers, of course that is not true! Some phones can be on standby for 2 to 4 weeks or provide several hours of voice.

A small solar panel could easily be shared by a number of people who would take it in turns to charge their phones.

To the question of sending files to the man in Tanzania the writer does not say whether he has access to a computer or only a mobile-phone. If the files are documents they would really need to be received on a computer since he will most likely want to print them. If this gentleman in Tanzania does not have his own e-mail address, could he find a friend who does?

professore
19th April, 2012 @ 07:03 am PDT

Errm so with your indigo system, in order to charge your mobile phone you just need to get a scratch card and text a number with your mobile phone...

Gethin Coles
19th April, 2012 @ 08:22 am PDT

In the "old days" when people carried pocket calculators around, many of them were solar powered. With the improvements in solar cell technology, shouldn't it be possible to power a smart phone with integral solar cells?

Ge Reid
19th April, 2012 @ 09:17 am PDT

Energy Guzzling or not... The points that i'm more interested in (Having looked a the datasheets and pages @ Eight19) are:

1: Their target audience are the 'bottom rung' of society...

How the hell can these people afford mobile phones? Let alone afford to pay to send messages to get their 'activation code.' Also would they even be using said 'mobiles' that much?

2: It's apparently self funding needing no govt financial aid... Yet the recipients not only have to pay $12 to get it installed, but also need to then buy the cards to enable them.

Shouldn't they just supply them free and work off of the recharges?

3: Its a 3000mAh rechargable battery.... My Iphone uses that same battery... Hell the rechargables in my keyboard are 2450mAh. Where no light exists before, suse the lights they provide ARE better... But to remove the use of oil lamps entirely why not provide something a little more powerful that could in turn power something a little bigger?

Queries aside... I DO think it's an excellent thing to see someone taclking an issue such as this in what is potentially a very eco-friendly and economically sound idea.

'Grats.

Andy.

@ Martin... in line with "professore" :- Your Sisters husband either needs to get an email account linked to his phone, or send him a smart-phone that has true internet capabilities and he should be able to access the 'servers.'

Andrew Donaldson
19th April, 2012 @ 10:21 am PDT

@gethin coles - after the Indigo system has been installed in a person's home, they then purchase a scratch card for around a dollar a week, validate the cards using SMS from a mobile phone and enter the resulting passcode into the unit which causes it to operate for a week. With Indigo, users save money on their weekly energy spend from day one and are provided with clean lighting for two rooms and power to charge their mobile phone.

See more http://www.eight19.com/technology/how-indigo-works

solar_energy
19th April, 2012 @ 10:33 am PDT

@Andrew Donaldson actually as the article here suggests, Africans love mobile and really value their phones. The number of mobile phone subscribers in Africa more than doubled from 246 million in 2008 to 500 million last year (according to Mobile Monday) with the estimated number at the end of 2012 around 735 million subscribers.

Alternatives to grid electricity are expensive. Forced to use kerosene, candles or disposable batteries, light for light, off-grid in emerging countries families pay over 100x the unit cost of energy in the West. This cost can represent as much as 30% of the net income of poor households. For example in Kenya, people are spending the equivalent of around 12 dollars a month on kerosene for lighting and for charging their mobile phone. The IndiGo solar energy system costs just over a dollar a week, so effectively for five dollars a month the customer gets clean light for two rooms and also power to charge a mobile phone. Rather than giving the system out for free, this more sustainable approach encourages the customer to value the product, provides maintenance and support, and saves the user money from day one. Once they’ve paid off the system they can also choose to upgrade to a larger system to power say a radio or have another light - see the "Energy Escalator" on the Eight19 website. Thanks for your feedback and hope that this answers some of your queries :)

solar_energy
19th April, 2012 @ 11:51 am PDT

re; Andrew Donaldson

Having a phone can make big economic differences. For example a fisherman who catches a sword fish use to have to sell it to a dealer who doesn't pay any more for it than he does for any other fish can now call the big hotels and restaurants send a picture and open the bidding as he races the fish back to port.

Slowburn
20th April, 2012 @ 09:36 am PDT

@Solar_energy.

Points taken. Just a few more thoughts / queries...

1: You say, "Once they’ve paid off the system" Does this mean that the recipient can pay off the $12 upfront cost in installments? Are you referring to the "Kick-Start" Scheme and its funds recouping? Or is there a minimum spend amount before an upgrade would be considered?

2: "The code must be entered before charging begins," This raises an interesting config / timing point. If the end user punches in their code at 12midday(0hrs) the battery starts to charge, come 7pm(7hrs) (assuming there's sufficient light) all systems should be go... Sun-up next day (18hrs), the depleted battery begins to charge again. (This is assuming a 1day charge voucher was used.) Come 12midday (24hrs)the recharge should then expire. Does the entire unit de-activate or is it simply the solar->battery link that breaks thus allowing the user to still harvest any accumulated power in the batteries?

3: Do the users need to input both the code from the recharge card and that of the reply sms? Or is it simply the sms code?

4: Back onto the 'bottom rung' point again... Had you thought of trying to coerce some of the local telco's to make the number that the user texts a free sms in return for the 'good will' and free advertising that could be available to them...

Ie: "All you have to do is send this code to that number... By the way if you're with telco xx, yy, or zz they will not charge you as they are big and helpful and just generally nice guys... You should TOTALLY swap providers"

lol, ok maybe a little extreme at the end... but the point is clear :)

5: Upgradability... I like it! Given the relatively low cost of the initial 2.5w unit, are the upgrades priced on a similar scale? ie: Entry level = $4.8 per watt @ $12 costing.

6: Does the $12 upfront cost cover manufacturing and install outlay, or are you still reliant on continued recharging to break-even / profit?

7: Should bad weather be on the horizon (ie: the wet season) or a family emergeny pop-up... could a month long charge card be paused until the bad weather has passed in order to avoid wasting credit on weather that will not achieve effective charging?

Sorry to hammer you with questions but i'm curious as to the application of the product and its impact on the users :)

Andrew Donaldson
20th April, 2012 @ 04:45 pm PDT
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