Is solar the new cellular?

Those of us who have broadband speeds to our homes, offices and even points in between tend to take this feature of 21st century life for granted. If blazing speeds to our devices don’t faze us, neither does the fact that we have lights, running water and heat, unless of course any of those things disappears even for a brief period of time.

Yet there are still parts of the world where electricity is not a given, let alone broadband service. For people in those areas, an innovative service from the same people that brought us the ground-breaking M-Pesa payment system may shed literal light on the subject.

M-KOPA is bringing solar energy solutions to ‘off-the-grid’ locations in Kenya and Uganda, with Tanzania slated to come on board by the end of the year. The pay-as-you-go offering supplies a much safer, cleaner source of power than kerosene and empowers customers by allowing them to pay in small daily instalments, giving them ownership over their equipment in just 1 year.

Besides bringing power and light to the people, M-KOPA has taken a page from its M-Pesa roots by implementing unique methods for customer service. The solar panels use existing cellular networks for billing cycles and customer alerts, and dominant Kenyan mobile operator Safaricom – which operates M-Pesa – handles marketing, branding and other aspects of getting M-KOPA services to the people who need it most.

In a slightly different twist on bringing solar power to rural areas, Google acquired drone maker Titan Aerospace earlier this year. But rather than using them for Amazon’s far-fetched scheme of delivering goods to your door, Google hopes to use the solar-powered drones to bring Internet access to remote areas of the world. This would work alongside Google’s Project Loon, which uses high-altitude balloons as a conduit for Internet access in isolated regions. And Facebook couldn’t be left out of this opportunity as it announces its own plans for solar-powered Wi-Fi drones.

While the efforts to bring light and Internet to the masses are altruistic in nature, they also made good business sense. M-KOPA has about 300 employees and works with hundreds more contractors on the ground in Kenya who are selling and supporting its solar power kits. The company has also raised $20 million in funding earlier this year to help it reach its goal of bringing its service to 1 million homes by 2018.

At a time when more privileged and entitled users are clamoring for the new iPhone or demanding that their data caps be abolished, it’s humbling to realize that much of the world’s population doesn’t even have power or a reliable way to get information from the outside world. By using existing networks and technologies, people will no longer be left in the dark.

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Anita Karve
About Anita Karve 37 Articles
Anita is a writer and editor with 20 years of experience covering just about everything in the technology space with a focus on computer networking and telecommunications. She was managing editor of Billing & OSS World magazine and technology editor at Network magazine and most recently was in charge of newsletter coverage at TM Forum.

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