The Backbenchers


By Monish Chhabra ǀ 9th September 2015

On 27th July, APJ Abdul Kalam – who served as the 11th president of India from 2002 to 2007 – passed away.

The man often described as the ‘People’s President’ left no will for the few belongings he had. He never owned a property or even a television in his entire life.

He had received the highest civilian honour of the country for his contributions to the Indian space program, missile development and nuclear technology.

For this deeply spiritual man, inspiring and motivating young minds was a key goal. He had set a target in 1999 to interact with 100,000 students over the following 2 years.

At the time of his death last month, he was delivering a lecture at a university.

Kalam came from a very humble family in a small town of southern India. He rose to become an eminent scientist and led unprecedented engineering feats. He constantly emphasized efforts to bridge the gap of inequality.

A great equalizer and enabler of our times is the ‘internet’.

The lines of class and status disappear when people from different socio-economic backgrounds, can access the same information on the net. Or use the same WhatsApp application to message their friends. Or have the same single user account on Facebook.

The virtual world is more empowering than the real world.

And yet, 2/3rd of the world’s population – about 5 billion people – are still not connected to internet. Almost a billion people in India alone are not connected. Nor are half the people of China. However, that can change fast with newer and better technology.

Sri Lanka announced on 28th July that it is going to become the first country in the world to have internet connectivity over the entire country. This is made possible by the “Project Loon” run by Google, which targets providing internet access specifically to remote areas.

These loons are high-altitude balloons floating in the stratosphere, about 20km above the ground. They are filled with helium and powered by solar energy. They are fitted with the equipment to send or receive signals from other balloons or internet antennas on the ground.

Each balloon can provide 3G connectivity to an area of about 5000 square kilometres. Only a dozen balloons are needed to cover the entire country of Sri Lanka. With no need of telecom towers or cables.

In Kenya, a broadband firm is using TV white-space frequencies to deliver Wi-Fi to remote areas of the country, for about 2% of the usual cost that telecom firms charge.

TV and radio signals already reach most corners of the world. When we switch from one radio channel to another, there is usually an empty band in-between. This is called the ‘white space’. They are left empty to prevent the interference between two adjacent channels.

These unused white space frequencies can deliver internet signals to the most remote places. No telecom towers or cables are required – the existing radio or TV signals are good enough to provide Wi-Fi.

However, to use internet, first we need to have electricity for all. And even after 100 years, only about half the world is electrified.

First form of electricity consumed was DC (direct current). It was used to light the lamps invented by Thomas Edison. This was in 1870s.

At that time, there was no good way to bump up the voltage of direct current. Hence it could not be transmitted over long distance. The electricity had to be consumed within 2km from its generator.

Thus, during 1870s and 1880s, only a few places could afford electricity. These were mostly public places, high-end hotels and a handful of very wealthy households.

However, a few scientists had been proposing the use of AC (alternating current), as against Edison’s DC. The most visible and vocal was Nikola Tesla, who invented the AC induction motor.

The game-changer was the invention and use of ‘transformer’. It could increase or decrease the voltage of current supplied. With high voltage, electricity could be supplied over long distances, thereby obliterating the need of a generator near each point of consumption.

Now the electricity could be produced in centralized power stations (run by coal or water) and transmitted to distant places. The electric production gained economies of scale and the distribution became cost-effective.

Thus, AC won the battle of currents and became the electrical standard in 1890s. The electrification of the world started and has continued over these 120 years.

Still 20% of the people in the world have no electricity. About another 20% do not have enough electricity. Thus, nearly half of the world’s population is still under-served. India alone has 400 million people who lack electricity.

Currently, most of the electricity is produced by electromagnetic generators. The energy required to run these generators comes from coal, nuclear, wind or hydro sources.

While this system has worked well over the last century, it has two major flaws.

First, reaching distant places require a very large investment in laying cables and transformers. Secondly, for the lack of a good way to store electricity, it must be produced and supplied in real time.

Two things underway can turn this on its head – the advent of solar and batteries. There are major innovations happening in both these fields – technology is improving and prices are falling.

Solar currently provides only 1% of the world’s electricity. It is still considered not economical enough for the masses.

However, that was also the case with ‘electricity’ itself. Only a few rich households had it when it was first distributed. Better technology made ‘electricity’ mass-market, so can ‘solar electricity’.

In due course, it would become possible for small communities, local entrepreneurs or even average households to set up their own solar-powered systems or even grids. There would be no need to run cables from a far-off coal station or a river dam.

Google runs a program called “Project Sunroof” which estimates the sun your roof receives and encourages solar installations. The technology behind it uses Google Maps for your location and the weather data.

You put in your address and Google estimates you how much usable sunlight your roof gets, how much power you can generate and the savings you can have by installing the solar panels.

This month, Cochin – a city in the Indian state of Kerala – announced that its new international airport would run completely on solar power. They have laid almost 50,000 solar panels on almost 50 acres of land.

If we combine the effect of these 3 major efforts underway – use sun to produce electricity, store it in batteries and connect everyone to internet – the effect would be epochal.

The production and consumption patterns would change in the virtual world, complemented by a good delivery network supported by drones.

People from small towns or villages can become the new consumer or vendor or both.

There are 200 villages in China, where at least 10% of the population makes their living by selling their products online, mainly through Alibaba platforms. However, Alibaba hasn’t yet reached even 100,000 villages. In total China has 600,000 of them.

De-centralized electric generation, local goods production and online sales – means lesser need to pack people together in dense pockets. The migration from rural to urban areas may slow down.

The gains in productivity could be staggering. It would be driven by the cooperation and collaboration of people the world over; more transparent, diverse, bottom-up and wide-spread.

The access to information could be transformational. A young man in a small African town could access the same lectures put online, that a young American attends in a top US college. People can see, hear or soon even touch things online that they cannot access in real life.

Kalam once said – “The best brains of the nation may be found on the last benches of the classroom”.

The un-electrified and un-connected half our world is the backbencher today. When that changes, many new Kalams may be found.

*Special thanks to Chiranjeet Borah for his tremendous effort in creating the beautiful illustrations for this report.

This write-up is for informational purpose only. It may contain inputs from other sources, but represents only the author’s views and opinions. It is not an offer or solicitation for any service or product. It should not be relied upon, used or construed as recommendation or advice. This report has been prepared in good faith. No representation is made as to the accuracy of the information it contains, nor any commitment to update it.