Less Power, More Power

A Little Energy Goes a Long Way

Somehow the concepts of ‘less is more’ and ‘small is beautiful’ do not ring out loud and clear in the community networking environment. Perhaps they are just too obvious: however, I suspect that for urban-focused networks, with their routers and access points dangling from eaves and out of windows, drawing energy from house utility connections, it is really irrelevant.

In the countryside, things are different. Networks stretch across the kilometers, lonely towers in remote spots relaying signals between clusters of homes, over jungle and desert, from hilltop to distant peak and down to the shaded valley below. In this scenario, efficient power solutions mean less money spent on expensive solar power, generated locally and guarded from the depredations of monkeys and men.

Needless to say, the deliverable goes further. In older systems of information delivery, mankind sought to create efficiency by centralising content creation in one place, transmitting across the world with megawatt transmitters, pumping powerful shortwave signals across the world. What price such efficiency, focusing on the packaging till the words became meaningless, the songs capsuled till the music couldn’t be heard.

How many times have I heard techies and engineers shake their heads and mutter, “There has to be a better way“? In the world of information exchange, evolved and transforming the age-old traditions of information dissemination, we find a semantic that neatly divides the e-Generation from its elders and [not-so-?]betters.

But the issues of communication, for a country as large as India, for rural areas that, almost by definition, occupy far greater spaces than the urban, go well beyond decentralisation. Many parts of the world have extensive electricity distribution networks in place, and energy generation systems to match. Among other reasons (but this is a major one), the people who live in such places are considered advanced societies.

That leaves the rest of the world, to some extent unpowered, silent and hungry for a better way of life. Also unempowered, ruled by despots, no matter what garb they wear. To add to the fun, a debate rages in polite society on global warming, of possible human contributions to climate change. All of this directly argues against the increased use of electricity by four billion people, already left behind the ‘advancements’ of the post-industrial information age.

From Amory Lovins to RK Pachauri, scientists and technologists have counseled energy conservation rather than efficient generation as an effective means of avoiding further worsening the runaway effect of climate change. It seems hard to believe, but hardly anyone is listening.

Some examples (from India): a move to nuclear cooperation with the US, whose own nuclear power industry has been at a standstill for about 3 decades; a rush by carmakers to produce very cheap small cars, affordable to such an extent that the fuel burn will skyrocket, and most bizarre of all, a drive by the Indian I&B ministry to force small community groups – they expect 5,000 to respond within a year – to use powerful transmitters.

Since it is only the last that directly impacts communication issues, I focus here on the alternatives to power-guzzling distance transmission. According to the policy guidelines, each community (represented by an ‘accredited’ non-government organisation) may only set up a single transmitter. This sounds reasonable, until one notices that, by definition, such transmitters will be the sole alternate communication for entire small geographies.

Almost certainly (and my friend Sajan Veniyoor, currently with UNESCO and a member of the special “vetting NGOs” panel set up by the Ministry, will bear me out) this results in each applicant for a license demanding the maximum power possible. In fact, the wording of the guidelines with regard to exceptions means that some want even more powerful transmission than the maximum 100 watts.

For the People, Of consultants, By Consultants: A more perverse situation can hardly be imagined. The command areas of these new radio stations will naturally include some of the poorest of the poor areas of the country, short of water and electricity, bereft both of external guidance and access to information for self-guidance – in many cases short of food, even though our agricultural production is more than enough to go around more than once. While 100 watts does not seem like a large number, that is only the defined output power. Even the most efficient design of solid-state transmitter draws several times that amount in order to function properly. Add to that the need for a production studio, and the bill keeps totting up.

In fact, it is the size of the bill that brings in a domino effect, fountaining costs in a vicious whirl of unsustainability. Not only are 100W transmitters quite expensive, the Ministry has, in its infinite wisdom (it took an eternity to liberalise the broadcast policy to this point) prepared a secret list of pre-approved vendors for this hardware. Curiously, the agents for these vendors also (coincidence!) represent peripheral hardware needed by radio stations, and I have seen estimates adding up to Rs 2 cr for a station of this nature. What amount of this gets secreted as consulting charges is anybody’s guess.

At this point, the bill for training and maintenance hasn’t even entered the picture.

In 2002, my friend and colleague, Dr Arun Mehta, and I assisted a self-help group of women in a small village (pop 3,000) in Andhra Pradesh to set up and run their own station – at a cost of less than Rs 30,000, which included portable digital recording/editing players. The station, transmitting all of 50 mW, could be picked up throughout the village. It was shut down by the government on the grounds of being a security hazard a year later.

Around this time, a young electrical repairer in an equally remote village in Bihar set up his own transmitter, made by modifying a wireless microphone, which costs Rs 100. Adding bits and pieces as he went along, he eventually had a station with a reach of 15 km. These are the only two examples of true grassroots community media initiatives from a nation of a billion people, perhaps illustrating how a gently repressive ‘democratic’ regime can be much more corrosively effective than others, that are more infamous and far more violently anti-people.

I am sure that not every station can be set up so cheaply, nor as simply, but it just shows what can be done with a little willpower and ingenuity.

There are, of course, ways to leverage high technology in an equally innovative fashion. While simple analogue radio stations can be set up for as little as Rs 2-2,500, using 50 year old cassette tape recorder technology, they only do radio, and the opportunities for the station to earn its way are limited. The synergy comes from using digital computing technology, powered by alternate sources of energy, providing opportunities for synergies that cross over the ‘silo’ mentalities of traditional managers and administrators.

Data signaling: Modern computers are designed for collaborative working, many people working on many computers that communicate with each other. Since 1995, when the International Electrical and Electronic Engineering standards body approved IEEE802.11 (since accepted as a group of standards called 802.11x), with subsets in a, b, g and n already in effect, plus a related standard 802.16 in the works, this communication has been wireless. By the beginning of this decade, the prices of the hardware made to use these standards was dropping remarkably fast, and d-i-y enthusiasts had found that the principles of effective radio technologies and techniques, honed by decades of ham radio individuals (‘ham’ is the term used by amateur radio persons), worked quite well.

Substituting jerry-built dish and other sophisticated high-gain antennae for the factory made and fitted variety, they found it was possible to maintain high data throughput rates over substantial distances. In fact, the real limitation was the data packet verification protocol, where the sender dropped the signal if acknowledgments from the receiver weren’t fast and furious enough (even electromagnetic waves need a finite amount of time to travel). What this means is that radio communication between computers as far apart as 10-15 kilometers can be and is done with data throughputs of up to 11 Mbps (it works at microwave frequencies, and is therefore line-of-sight only). In contrast, data signaling using telephone modems cannot exceed 56Kbps, and those of mobile telephones do not exceed 115 Kbps, about a hundred times slower.

Higher speeds are of course possible with modern telephone systems, using pure digital signaling, and with sophisticated new mobile systems, but they rarely reach 11 Mbps. They also are highly skewed, with downloading normally set for much higher speeds than uploading, which is fine for consumer applications, but terrible for working online.

However, for audio, this hardly matters. Excellent voice modulation to digital systems needs bandwidth of only 11 Kbps, with about 44 Kbps needed for high-quality audio (ie, music, etc). A typical WLAN (wireless local area network) will therefore allow a large number of live audio exchanges simultaneously, before it begins to affect collaborative computing.

Each of the transmitters needed to achieve such superb results only draws 100 or 200 mW (different manufacturers make slightly different equipment, depending on the regulations applied in their markets, but for India, the upper limit stands at 4 W EIRP, which is a factor larger. They draw about 5 W each, which is not much at all, an energy need that can easily be met with inexpensive solar panels, or through a mix of alternate energy sources chosen from all the alternatives practical in the geophysical area. By and large, a low-power generations system tied to a storage battery does the job, providing 24×7 electrical energy.

However, since such signals need digital receivers aligned to computers in order to communicate, they are not practical by themselves for community stations that want to reach households.

The all-new, singing, dancing, hybrid micropower digital multimedia station: Instead, the data signaling should be used for micro-production centers and slave transmission centers to communicate.

A slave transmitter is nothing but a powered (the kind of setup described above works fine and is cheap enough) SBC (single board computer) with the audio output fed directly to a low-power (micropower is fine in nearly every situation) FM transmitter. If the slave needs to be placed many kilometers away from the production center (which may happen, although it is not likely), then its receiver capabilities can and probably should be enhanced with a suitable high-gain antenna pointed directly at the transmitter. Once put in place, such equipment probably needs no attention for years at a time. A micropowered transmitter linked to an SBC and power source of this nature can easily be mounted near the top of a tree in a village, and be quite inconspicuous. While ordinary FM receivers will pick up the signal reliably, such hardware is almost impossible to locate using triangulation, since the signal is so weak, and the ‘box’ so small.

The production center is actually the interesting development. While analogue productions units can be built for peanuts, the capabilities of digital audio editing are simply outstandingly superior. It will be hard to find anyone recommending analogue editing nowadays, unless budget is a severe constraint, or where government permission for a radio station is awaited and community workers want to gain experience of editing and production without risking higher investments on hardware (there are about 90 such ‘pending unlicensed’ stations in India at the moment, I understand). In short, for training and/or learning.

However, once the decision to go digital is made, the hardware part is almost deliriously simple. If the need is for live editing, it helps to have a digital mixer also, otherwise hardly any special peripheral devices are needed. The digital mixer allows a voice-over from a live microphone to be easily ‘mixed’ into the recorded broadcast signal. Of course the studio will probably need a range of recorders, microphones and archival resources, as well as a reasonably soundproof room for studio recordings. Most of this stuff can be built from second-hand hardware, and given the rate of change of digital technology, this is not a bad idea, actually.

The central, most critical, device is a computer. Given the fact that the computer is synergistically more powerful and useful when it is networked, serious thought should be given to acquiring a set of computers, rather than one only, right from the beginning. This may not be a significant advantage in advanced economies, hence one doesn’t see this kind of recommendation often, but the fact is that in rural locations in India and similar nations, this may be the first time a computer is seen at all. A network of local computers makes for a very useful cyber-center, which can be located in or near the traditional community center of the village.

A functioning cybercenter is a place that the literate can begin to communicate, whereas a functioning radio station is the starting point for the illiterate as well. Such communication can and will be multimedia in nature, with learning and production tools abounding (an amazing number of them free, as in beer, and also in usage). To some extent, even the illiterate can use multimedia tools to communicate, given sufficiently sympathetic situations. Unfortunately, there are very few examples of practising centers of this kind in India, but the famous ‘hole-in-the-wall‘ learning environments have validated the practicality of such innovations.

Here’s a (fairly accurate, actually) rough and ready roundup of costs for such a functioning media center, that will operate independently of external energy, and allow hundreds of people to acquire training in useful skills over a amazingly short period – the most important skill of all being the ability to communicate. Costs will vary of course, depending on the strengths of the nearest markets for such things.

Learning/production computers: 5 (low power computers, preferably laptops) @ Rs 25,000 each = Rs 1,25,000

Microphones, recorders etc: 5 sets @ Rs 1,000 each = Rs 5,000

Wireless networking: 5 units (assuming 5 sets of outlying clusters per station) @ Rs 10,000 each = Rs 50,000

Self-powered slave transmitters: 5 @ Rs 5,000 (3k for the board and 2k for electricity) = Rs 25,000

Additional expenses on above (assuming towers needed): 6 (one for the center) @ Rs 15,000 each = Rs 90,000

Total cost (not including transmitters and antennae, which will be built for peanuts locally) = Rs 2,95,000.
As we say in India, this is Bata pricing of less than Rs 3,00,000, which is about US$7,500 at current rates of exchange. Without towers, subtract Rs 90,000, or US$ 2,000 roughly.

This is of course, only the projected hardware cost, and there will be other expenses. However, nearly all those expenses will be necessary for running any kind of radio station. The difference is that the training imparted in this center will include so-called ‘high-end’ network management and computer maintenance, as well as low power energy generation, thus aiming to ensure the people in the region around the station will take the first steps to reducing the digital divide for themselves.

And, of course, such stations will not be free of energy generation, and will continue to contribute to energy imbalances in the atmosphere. I strongly believe that an understanding of the risks being run will inevitably be part and parcel of the learnings of such community media centers, and we will find humanity beginning to transform itself from the grassroots.

It is well-nigh impossible to reverse the slide towards a fully industrialised world. What we can do is work to ensure that future decisions and directions are made in a far more participatory fashion than possible today. In attempting to hold back the billions while a few continue to enjoy restricted access, the entire applecart will get upset, and terrible chaos prevail.

To a large extent, living in balance with nature is something that rural India has done for aeons, apparently without the need for industrialised sophistication. However, It is simply foolish to advocate some kind of noble savage environment of the pre-industrial kind. This is no longer possible, the influence of urban populations and their needs is inexorably tipping the planet as a whole. To avoid chaos, we need information understood at a much grainier level than even possible earlier. Self-sustaining community media communication centers are an integral part of achieving this goal.



Filed under Accessibility, Blogroll, broadband, Community, connectivity, Democracy, development, energy, Internet, Intranet, Privacy, Radio, Security, technology, Uncategorized, Wi-Fi

4 responses to “Less Power, More Power

  1. Sajan

    Vickram’s views are generally considered heretical, mostly because we are all comfortable with old ways of thinking about communication. Ever since the Telegraph Act of 1885, we are so used to legislating for technology that the country has built up vast soviet-style ministries, departments, wings, units, authorities and what-have-you that would take a considerable effort to dismantle, both conceptually and physically. The entire discourse on radio – including community radio – is based on historic precedents and the command-and-control structures inherited from our colonial masters, which is why the government is comfortable with the single studio-transmitter-tower model and why they get the heebie-jeebies when confronted with the more distributed model of broadcasting suggested by Vickram, no matter how cheap or efficient the new model(s) may be.

    It probably makes more sense to have half a dozen very low power FM transmitters linked by some sort of mesh network rather than one 100 watt transmitter bouncing its signal off hill and dale, but that would require some radical rethinking in Sanchar Bhavan and Shastri Bhavan and I don’t think the old dears in their crumbling faux ivory towers are ready for that yet.

  2. communicall

    It is more than thinking efficiency: the world as we know it is nearing the end of its tether. To promote energy wasting technologies in this day and age is barely short of criminal.

    Yet, without the free flow of information, without access for all, where will salvation lie?

    Clearly, then, there is but one option: to design for every erg we spend, to eke out every last bit of value. We no longer have the luxury of being profligate.

    Is this message also too much for our old dears to comprehend? Do they matter?

  3. Very interesting post. I’d like to refer to these ideas at my blogs (telecompk.net, tawanai.com) as food for thought.

  4. Greetings! I’m new to the site. I’ve read several comments about cooling solar panels but I haven’t seen anything about this: Will spraying the hot surface of solar panel glass with cool water break the glass? I am concerned about the sudden temperature change introducing stress to the glass surf.

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