Computer Aid Readies Container-Based Cyber Café

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IT charity Computer Aid International is about to ship a solar powered shipping container that will act as a cyber café for rural communities in Africa

Computer Aid International has finished building the prototype of a new portable, solar powered cyber café, which will give rural communities in Africa the chance to get online.

The portable cyber café is a standard 20 foot shipping container, which has built-in solar panels on the roof. The idea is that it can be shipped to Africa, and dumped at any remote location, and offer a connection to the Internet.

According to Computer Aid International, this first cyber café is being sent to Macha in Zambia on Tuesday 30th March, to provide the community with Internet access through Africa’s largest rural Wi-Fi network.

Thin client networks require less power

The cyber café houses a fully functional computer set up, comprising a thin client network of eleven monitors running off a standard Pentium 4 PC. Solar panels have been fitted to power the container, which will be located over 70km from the closet tarmac road.

“The reasoning behind this concept is that a number of partners were telling us about the problems in areas where there is no Internet connectivity or mains power,” Tony Roberts, CEO of Computer Aid International, explained to eWEEK Europe UK. “We had just done a research project on using renewable energy, and we found that the capital costs involved were quite expensive. Indeed, in one school we examined in Zambia, its solar panel provided only enough power to drive one PC and one printer.”

“That example worked but it was scalable, and we could not afford to buy 20 solar panels per school,” said Roberts. “So we thought, why not look for lower power PCs instead. We discovered some thin clients and notebooks, which required a fraction of the power that a conventional PC needed.”

Roberts explained that Computer Aid opted to deploy 11 thin client workstations (10 workstations and one admin station) from N Computing, powered by one Pentium PC. “This setup required less panels and allowed it to be used with solar power.”

“At the far end of the container, there is a counter and you pay the man there for access to the Internet,” said Roberts. “”Users can also charge their mobile phones, and there are ten workstations that the user can sit at. The entire operation is powered by the solar panels on top of the sea container. This prototype is the deluxe model and has 6 panel, but the economy model will be able to manage with less of them.”

More containers to follow

Roberts said that the containers will maily be funded by UK commercial organisations and that some will be procured by other organisations.

“This concept is suited to a wide variety of uses, such as emergency relief uses, where connectivity is required at short notice. It can also be used in schools, or MPs dealing with their local constituents, as well as rural hospitals to provide online training for health workers for example.”

Roberts said that after the first container is shipped, another two will go into the field also immediately after that. He estimates the cost of a container will be in the region of £14,000 to £25,000 per cyber café, plus shipping costs.

“The prototype will last for 12 hours, and of course is charging during the daylight hours,” said Roberts. “There is a cut off which depends on the number of users using the cyber café, and the number of mobile phones being recharged. If the batteries drop below 50 percent, the cut off kicks in. This is because if the batteries are discharged too often, they will only last a couple of years instead of 20 years. The solar panel themselves last for 25 years.”

Connectivity to the Internet is provided by three wireless possibilities. The first option is via any cellular or GSM signal. The second uses a wireless router to pick up any nearby Wi-Fi signals, and when none of those options are available, it will use a satellite.

“The only powered cooling is for the equipment itself, and there is no air conditioning for the cyber café but the walls are insulated,” said Roberts. “The solar panels are built into the roof and are welded in (to guard against theft).”

“It is a new project for us, born out of need of some of the organisations we work with, wanting to reach isolated rural communities,” said Roberts. “It has exciting potential, and the idea is that you simply drop the container anywhere in the planet, with no main electricity or connectivity, and you are good to go.”

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