The One Laptop Per Child project, which began in 2005, aims to give a personal laptop to the nearly 2 billion children in the developing world with little or no access to education. But the rugged, low-cost computer has one big problem. Without Internet connectivity, it is just a laptop. And that's where Bruce Baikie comes in.
For 16 years at Sun Microsystems, Baikie's main responsibility has been to help global telecommunication companies build and run more energy-efficient data centers. But now the engineer is also working on telecom strategies for poor children in some of the world's most remote areas.
A need to do more than sit behind a computer
Baikie was motivated, in part, by a comment from his young daughter.
"One of the other children asked, 'What does your father do?'" he recalls, adding ruefully, "She said, 'He sits behind a computer.' And I thought about that really hard and said, 'I want my daughter to think more of what I do with my life than I just sat behind a computer.'"
What got Baikie out from behind his computer was a problem he felt he had the expertise and ingenuity to solve: getting hundreds of Rwandan primary schools without electricity hooked into the Internet. He learned that an international partnership had brought cell phone and Internet service to the major cities, but the country still lacked the network of routers - and electricity - to distribute the Internet connection to rural users.
Baikie found his inspiration one day when he unplugged his laptop and watched it go into power-saving mode to conserve the battery. He realized he could do the same thing with a wireless, or Wi-Fi, router. With special software and a new bit of control technology, he designed a solar-powered unit that used less energy than standard routers. It could even be powered down completely at night, when no one's at school, and then automatically wake up in the morning.
Solutions for areas with unreliable or scarce electricity
"Using these power-management techniques, we're able to reduce the power consumption of the router down to a point where rather than a $2,000 solar installation, it can be a $500 one to power the device," he explains. And because the device uses smaller solar panels and batteries, it is also easier to build and install."
The Wi-Fi router, batteries, solar panels and new Intelligent Charge Control are put into a waterproof and dustproof housing, which can be placed anywhere outside. If one element breaks down, the whole unit is replaced.
"They're small enough where they can be put up on a roof where they are out of sight, which deters from theft because if you can't see them, no one is going to take them," he explains.
Baikie says the biggest issue is bird droppings.
"If you get too many on the solar panel, it cuts the efficiency of the solar panel down. So we have to make sure that they get cleaned now and then, if there is a bird problem."
Solar-powered Wi-Fi a gift to Senegal
Baikie's first venture was to set up a grid network for the Senegalese village of Keur Sadaro, about three hours' drive from the capital, Dakar. He installed six routers to bring the Internet signal into the village from the nearby town of Thies and blanket the school with Wi-Fi coverage.
But the project didn't end there. Baikie taught teachers and students how to use the donated computers. He also had to build solar stations to charge the laptops, since there is no electricity in Keur Sadaro, and teach the villagers how to maintain the equipment.
Baikie says working side-by-side with the Senegalese gave him a better understanding of the challenges - and value - of providing Internet access.
"They're starving for information, and not only global information but what other people are doing in other parts of their country. They have no books. They can't afford to buy books, but now because of Internet access, they get access to their Ministry of Education and all the soft copybooks that they can download to their laptops to use for their studies."
Baikie says that because of the laptops, school attendance in Keur Sadaro has skyrocketed. Parents who once kept their kids home to earn money or work in the fields now send them to school to get an education because of the availability of learning materials.
A for-profit company with a social conscience
Seed money to launch Green Wi-Fi came from the One Laptop Per Child project, but, Baikie notes, fundraising to produce the Wi-Fi units and keep the projects going is his biggest challenge. That's why he's applied for a patent on the energy-saving technology he created with company vice president Parag Mody and did not set up Green Wi-Fi as a non-profit organization.
"I set the company up for-profit because we saw the potential of licensing the technology to other applications," he explains. "And, then, with that licensing fee, we could use that to do our school projects in other parts of the world. So, it's a for-profit but with a social conscience."
Green Wi-Fi currently has a project in Panama as well as in Senegal. For those, Baikie built the Wi-Fi units by hand. His company has also signed agreements to bring the Internet to schools without electricity in Gambia, Cameroon, Rwanda and Micronesia. For those projects, 1,000 Wi-Fi units are being produced in Taiwan to Baikie's specifications.
Baikie volunteers his time to the Green Wi-Fi effort. His compensation, he says, is the joy school kids in remote areas get from their computers. His best reward, however, comes from his own child.
"Now my daughter doesn't see her father as, 'Well, he just sits behind a computer. That's what he does for a living.' She says that he helps kids in Africa get Internet connectivity so that they can have better lives. That's the biggest satisfaction I've gained."
Although this is Baikie's project, he is quick to point out that without a cadre of volunteer engineers and software designers, Green Wi-Fi would not be able to help children throughout the developing world start to bridge the digital divide.