Share the Problem: OMC 1/2
Note: This is a 3-hour workshop that last for two consecutive sessions, with the second session running from 1630-1800.
OMC is a for-profit business that provides small-scale, local and renewable “micropower” to communities and telecom companies in rural India. They are now building a 100Mbps solar-powered Wi-Fi network to cover the rural communities they currently supply with renewable energy. This Wi-Fi network is very fast locally, but it has a narrow path to the public Internet because there is low available bandwidth in rural locations. The Challenge is to create applications and services that make good use of the fast local wireless and that meet the needs of rural communities in India.
The energy background
Over 400 million people in India do not have access to electricity – and neither do 150,000 mobile towers. Until now these communities and businesses have largely relied on kerosene, diesel and other fossil fuels.
OMC is a for-profit business that provides small-scale, local and renewable “micropower” to these communities and telecom companies. Their solar energy is cheaper than fossil fuels, and can help strengthen local business, increase children’s study time, and improve rural health. Already OMC provides power to three of India’s largest telecom companies and to more than 30,000 people. Within a few years they will reach several million people.
The social context
The average population size of a small rural Indian community in Uttar Pradesh is around 3,000 households = 18,000 people. We estimate that almost every home has a mobile phone, and that the majority of mobile phones are still lower end Nokias with low cost smartphones making up between 10-20%.
The tech story
OMC is building a 100Mbps solar-powered Wi-Fi network to cover the rural communities they currently supply with renewable energy. “In a rural community, energy uptake follows a quite predictable path”, says Pär Almqvist, CMO at OMC. “It starts with mobile charging, then lighting, cooling and heating, transportation and agricultural applications. What our customers were asking for most – after getting reliable mobile charging, lighting and cooling – was media and entertainment. So that’s why we decided to start solar Wi-Fi.”
OMC is testing the Wi-Fi in three locations, and plans to roll it out to all their micropower plants during 2014. By the end of the year, they will have around 100 plants in operation.
Inexpensive, Android-based, Chinese smartphones have started to replace the low end Nokias that have dominated the rural Indian mobile landscape. OMC is currently running a pilot scheme to rent out affordable solar-charged tablets, which can connect to the local Wi-Fi network. “While we can’t share exact figures, the tablet pilot has been very successful,” explains Pär. “As soon as we’ve decided on a final price point for daily, weekly and monthly rentals we’re confident that demand will rival that for lighting.”
Why we need you
The Wi-Fi network that OMC is building is very fast locally, but it has a narrow path to the public Internet. This limitation is because there is low available bandwidth in rural locations.
In this Share the Problem session, Technoport and OMC invite you to participate in an interdisciplinary workshop to develop applications and services that make use of fast local wireless and that are useful in rural India. This workshop will stimulate open and innovative learning across disciplines, while contributing possible solutions to a practical, real-world challenge.
Check out this site for more information about Share the Problem.
Tech factors to consider
OMC will be installing local servers, perhaps in partnership with other providers. The telecom companies are enthusiastic about this new development, and are keen to consider further partnership opportunities.
App developers would need to invest money into the development, based on the potential of future profits. Customers would also contribute, since Wi-Fi network access is part of the cost of renting a solar charged tablet on a pay-as-you-go basis. Costs are fixed for daily, weekly and monthly access.
Although OMC is a leader in this field, there are also a couple of other rural Wi-Fi projects in both India and Nepal that are using mesh network technology. OMC would consider partnering with these projects if needed for future expansion.
Social factors to consider
Local Wi-Fi has great potential to increase social connectivity and economic prosperity in rural India. According to Pär: “Both professional, personal and social needs are clearly unmet as our customers can currently only reach outside their community through a very narrow path via their mobile phones. As OMC’s business has a very positive impact on socioeconomic development, local governments are also very supportive of our initiatives – including this project to bridge the digital divide.”
To get the ball rolling, here are some areas where apps might be beneficial.
- Social networking: how do people communicate within and between villages? What would they like to share socially?
- Farmers: with agriculture making up 52% of India’s workforce, farming and allied sectors could reap huge benefits from local Wi-Fi. What options exist for access to market data and weather forecasts, knowledge sharing, or co-operation?
- Students: how might local Wi-Fi make learning more accessible or relevant? What about data storage, peer teaching, long-distance or life-long learning?
- Business: what local businesses might spring up or grow through local Wi-Fi, for example reshaping product ordering or equipment sharing?
- Healthcare: much of the focus on rural Internet has been on providing healthcare services and information. How might this be adapted for local Wi-Fi?
- Banking: Could local Wi-Fi facilitate online banking or microloans?
- Transport: with limited transport options and long distances, how might local Wi-Fi facilitate travel sharing or alternate transport?
- Governance: what possibilities are there to increase the accessibility of or engagement in of local government?
Sources of inspiration:
Other apps using local Wi-Fi network to share and communicate include Wi-Fi Talkie, Photo Transfer, Wimyne, Lan Chat Messenger, and Wi-Fi Groups. TinCan is an app allowing direct communication between devices without Internet. Be-Bound is an app allowing Internet connection over the 2G network.
Apps and services for rural areas include ITC e-Choupal – providing internet kiosks for Indian farmers – MicroForester – an app through which people in remote areas get paid to plant trees – as well as apps for farmers in Kenya and Australia. PEEK is an app that uses Wi-Fi and smartphone tech to conduct remote eye exams.
Fields of interest: wifi, solar wifi, digital divide, socioeconomic development, app development, mobile services, energy, renewable energy, sustainability, micropower
OMC is a new type of power company that produces and distributes energy from renewable sources where there is no reliable power grid. Today, OMC supplies power to the largest telecom companies in India and over 6,000 homes. By 2015, OMC will have over 1,500 Micropower Plants, powering 10 million people and 3,500 telecom towers.