Power Play

[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]

Now that we’ve got the beginnings of truly nationwide communications, we need to deal with power generation. We’ll never generate enough power to run a desktop computer in every house, and community computer centres are expensive and of limited usefulness, so we need to see how suitable things like the emerging class of micro-laptops (like Asus’ new Eee PC or OLPC’s XO laptop) are for use in the islands.

Smart phones and even plain old vanilla mobiles also have a critical role to play in rural access to communications. There are any number of very simple information services that can be deployed via text messaging.

But in order to do this, we need to power these devices. A mobile phone uses very little electricity, to be sure, but in a village with none at all, even a little is a lot.

Both Digicel and TVL have made small solar chargers available to their customers in order to push uptake in areas where mains power is not available. Telecom’s version was fairly decent quality, but a little pricy when added to the cost of a phone and SIM card. Digicel decided to go one better and gave one away with every phone they sold.

The charger Digicel offered had a retail value of 3000 vatu, according to their promotional materials. I confess to mild incredulity when I read that. The materials and construction just seemed a little… cheap. Not trusting my own judgement, I brought the charger to a local alternative energy expert. He’s been working for about a decade now in Vanuatu, and knows better than anyone just how much can go wrong with small-scale power projects in the islands.

My friend confirmed my suspicions. He observed that while the casing was strong (we threw it into the dirt several times), it was not adequately sealed against moisture, ants and dust. In many parts of Vanuatu, hardly a day goes by without a few drops of rain. The instruction sheet accompanying the charger indicates that it requires a minimum of 8 hours of direct sunlight in order to charge properly. (Digicel’s literature upped the ante to 12 hours.) Leaving the charger out in an unshaded place (i.e. some distance from the house) would almost certainly expose it to some amount of rain. Asked how much moisture would be required to render the device inoperable, my friend refused to speculate, but confessed that he wasn’t very optimistic about its chances.

The real danger, though, was that people would leave their mobile plugged into the charger, unaware that the solar panel charges its own internal battery, not the phone. When the charger inevitably gets rained on, so too will the phone.

His biggest concern, however, was the undersized solar panel. ‘The equation’s really simple,’ he said to me. ‘A bigger panel equals quicker charging.’ He pointed out to me that even the charger’s documentation made it clear that it was not designed to be the primary means by which someone could keep their phone charged.

Being in the tropics does not mean we have lots of sunlight. Solar panels don’t work so well on cloudy days or under trees. Granted, there are places in Vanuatu where solar power is fine most of the time, but it’s least reliable right when you need it most. During hurricane season, even in the sunniest places, it’s not at all unusual to see a week or more of cloudy days.

The verdict: Digicel have done very well to recognise the importance of small-scale power generation to mobile phone use in the islands. This promotion, however, is only a half-hearted [poor word choice. ed] small step in the right direction.

I asked my friend if he could suggest something better, and he pulled out a small hand-cranked generator unit. It was built of such sturdy plastic, I felt like I would need a hammer to crack it. The crankshaft and handle were equally sturdy; their size and the resistance I felt seemed about right, even for someone with little strength. I asked how long one would have to crank it to fully charge a mobile phone. My friend did a little back-of-the-napkin math and said it would typically require close to an hour, if you want a 100% charge on a fully depleted phone battery.

I imagined someone sitting in the kitchen, chatting with others, watching the children, all the while cranking slowly at the charger. It seemed like a plausible enough scenario, but I strongly suspect that the reality will be a bit different. People might be much more inclined to charge the phone exactly enough to make a brief call. Charge for a few minutes when the need arises, and Bob’s your uncle. The only problem of course is that frequently charging a battery in small amounts significantly reduces its lifetime.

As I weighed the solar and crank-driven charger in each hand, the choice seemed clear. But what about the price? Surely the crank was prohibitively expensive? Nope, my friend assured me. About 2500 vatu retail, with reduced prices for volume orders.

Anywhere else in the world, this insight and experience might be wasted on the telecommunications companies. Historically, telcos the world over have proven less than receptive to consumer – or even regulatory – feedback.

It was a story from my native Canada that put things in perspective for me. I read that two of the largest mobile telephone providers there had decided to start charging some of their users for every text message they received, as well as those they sent. The online news story had about 200 user comments attached to it, all of them critical of the decision, many of them loudly deriding the companies involved. The top comment had been recommended by about 300 others.

A quick bit of math shows that more than a thousand people took the time either to register their opinion or to show support for others’. In a country whose population exceeds 30 million, this is nothing more than a bit of transient noise. Nothing at all for the mobile service providers to worry about.

Not so in Vanuatu. One of the beauties of living in a small place is that we all have to get along. I can tell you from experience that a manager has to walk a long mile to avoid talking shop at the cafe, in the grocery store, at the gym and even the nakamal. The distance between one’s professional and personal roles in Vanuatu society are a great deal shorter than it might be elsewhere.

That’s good news. It means that when we ask questions about mobile phone service on the local IT mailing list, we get answers. It means we can provide our questions, comments and occasionally our praises without being filtered by an intermediary.

And that’s what we’ve got to do. It’s clear that both TVL and Digicel are aware of the problem of power generation in the islands. We trust that they will understand that they’ve made a good start, but they need to adjust their efforts to better fit the local environment.

One thought on “Power Play

  1. Have you seen Potenco’s Pull-Cord Generator? It looks an interesting and well designed device at first glance.

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