Apparently some people commenting on this blog are laboring under the impression that we are simple nay-sayers worthy of criticism by comparison with the dynamic folks at OLPC, who are at least taking action. I realize from this that I have not blown my own horn nearly loud enough.
in 2001 I was approached by Lee Thorn of the Jhai Foundation to discuss possible ways to honor the request made to them by the people of a Laotian village with which they were working. That request was simple - telecommunications for a group of five villages having no electricity or phone lines and shadowed by a mountain from the cell network. They wanted telephone connectivity so that they could get better prices for their agricultural produce.
The resulting design is described here. I volunteered as project engineer through the first attempt to install in February of 2003. From what I learned there and subsequently I determined that a new industry was waiting to be born, and I described it in a paper delivered at the O'reilly Emerging Technologies Conference in 2005.
Since 2003, when the Jhai prototype system was displayed at Geneva and we found that most questions referred to the pedal power generator, we have been concentrating our engineering efforts on designing an all-purpose village power utility in the 100 watt range capable of keeping batteries charged from a number of possible sources, with pedal generation as a backup. I will discuss this design in a later post.
In the meantime people that I recruited into the Jhai effort have gone on to establish their own nonprofit which has installed systems in Uganda and has more in the pipeline. The original Jhai system was installed on the Navajo reservation in Arizona in a slightly different configuration than designed for Laos, where installation was blocked (the valley now has power and cell phone coverage, though I still consider it an unfinished project).
All of this was done on the proverbial shoestring, with parts bought from the proceeds of an on-line appeal for donations over my name. Having had to approach the problem hat in hand has fed my concern that the OLPC might affect funding sources negatively.
Still, if it is to be a real industry, then investment will become available after a certain amount of "internally funded" work gets done. I've been there before, in personal computers, and I know what to expect. On the other hand, back then we didn't have a huge distraction like OLPC occupying center stage and threatening to drive the audience away.