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Bikes Power Computers, Telephones in Developing World


An old invention is taking on a new use to bring phone and computer services to rural areas. VOA Frank Ling reports on efforts to power these systems using renewable energy and bike power.

The World Bank says that billions of people in underdeveloped countries do not have access to basic communication services, necessary for meeting the health, educational, and economic goals of people around the world.

Communication networks, present everywhere in industrialized countries, are not frequently installed in remote areas due to high costs and lack of durability. In addition, rural places do not have reliable electricity to power them.

But a new non-profit company, called Inveneo, is now offering inexpensive ways to install and power these networks.

Laura Mellow is with Inveneo in San Franciso, California and says her company's systems are designed to survive dusty and rugged outdoor environments and consume little power. Mellow says that renewable energy sources, which do not require fossil fuels, can power their devices.

"Inveneo was founded to bring communication technologies to people in environments who have no access to it. Our philosophy is that communications is just such a powerful tool in terms of connecting people's lives and giving them the opportunity and the means to make improvements through education or through business," she said.

Solar power is the renewable energy source of choice most of the time.

"Solar is a great technology to use in sunny environments but it's difficult in environments where you are in a rainforest for example, where the treetops are very high and it's very dense," she noted. "There's also wind but that requires a location that has fairly consistent wind."

Instead, Mellow says that bicycles, which are the main mode of transportation in many parts of the world, are an ideal source of power for communication networks.

"So if it's monsoon season and there is three or four days of no sunlight, you can use it as a backup," she added. "Or if you've got heavy computing requirements. It's a bicycle that is connected to a generator that powers a battery and the system runs off the battery. For about 15 minutes of pedaling time you get one hour of computing time."

Inveneo's first system was installed in Uganda last year, connecting five villages through a wireless network. Mellow says villagers are using the system to improve their businesses.

"The people use it to talk to each other," she explained. "They use it to call surrounding villages, the market towns, to find out the best prices for their products. Then they go there and sell theirs. They also coordinate with each other so that they can pool their crops and take it to villages where they can take it to villages where they can get more money for their crops based on volume."

The villagers are also using the computers to help their children find schools and scholarships.

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