Would you rather have electricity or an internet connection?

by on February 2, 2009 at 11:53 am in Web/Tech | Permalink

Entasopia is a cool name for a place in Kenya:

The outpost, with about 4,000 inhabitants, is at the end of that road and beyond the reach of power lines. It has no bank, no post office, few cars and little infrastructure. Newspapers arrive in a bundle every three or four weeks. At night, most people light kerosene lamps and candles in their houses or fires in their huts and go to bed early, except for the farmers guarding crops against elephants and buffalo.

Entasopia is the last place on earth that a traveler would expect to find an Internet connection. Yet it was here, in November, that three young engineers from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, with financial backing from Google, installed a small satellite dish powered by a solar panel, to hook up a handful of computers in the community center to the rest of the world.

Here is the full story.  Here is a landing strip in Entasopia.  Here are Entasopia girls reciting an AIDS poem.  Here are the local hills.

1 Renee February 2, 2009 at 12:20 pm

Wow, that’s awesome. I mean, if you have a few crank-powered XOs, the world is literally at your fingertips. If it’s an either/or, I’d choose the ‘net connection any day. Even if it did mean no running water.

2 Tom February 2, 2009 at 12:30 pm

Are you sure the name is right? Google maps doesn’t seem to think it exists. Where abouts in Kenya is it?

3 Xmas February 2, 2009 at 12:55 pm

But Bob,

With an internet connection, you can email Dean Kamen and ask for some nifty Stirling Engines.


4 Podunk February 2, 2009 at 1:15 pm

I live in an area affected by the ice storms, so I experienced the loss of both for several days last week. Anecdotally, the loss of Internet was more disappointing. That’s probably because I was expecting the power loss, and had backup plans to at least power the blower on our fireplace and the laptop, cable modem, and router. Additionally, I managed to get Internet access by borrowing a mobile broadband card before I borrowed a generator to power the house.

Though I think long term, my priorities would probably have gotten a bit more rational and gone to power over Internet.

5 autolycus February 2, 2009 at 1:29 pm

As someone who has been to parts of the world that have internet access but no power grid (Alotau on the eastern tip of Papua New Guinea most recently), I have to say that the internet connection is far more useful. I say that for two main reasons. The first of which is simply one of cost. The internet connection requires exactly what has been described above: a satellite dish and a single box that can be powered by all kinds of power sources such as a solar panel. A power grid, on the other hand, is VERY costly. First the area has to construct a power plant and then it must provide transmission wires and substations to distribute the power to potential consumers. The alternative, and likely solution in most places like PNG is for each house or business to have a diesel generator that is run only when necessary. Such generators are significantly cheaper to operate in short-term situations than a power plant that is sufficiently setup to handle a significant base load plus surges. Maintainence and replacement of faulty parts are also much cheaper with decentralized power generation.

The second big reason is the opportunities that are created by the internet connection. Sharing of culture, language, technical knowledge, and, perhaps most importantly, some form of trade are facilitated by the internet connection in ways far more profound than an electrical grid. The grid, in and of itself, provides nothing particularly compelling, especially given alternative, decentralized, means of electrical generation.

6 ZBicyclist February 2, 2009 at 2:16 pm

Autolycus’s comments makes sense to me.

A few years ago I spent a few days in a hill tribe village in Thailand which had no electricity. They had a few solar cells on a roof — which they used to power a TV in the chief’s house / main meeting room.

They were saving up to get more solar cells — not to power the well, or electric lights or some refrigeration, but to buy a second TV, so they would have viewing choices!

The internet is a much more valuable a link to the outside world.

7 Rob February 2, 2009 at 2:39 pm

Yeah, the Internet equals information, and information is important. I’d rather chose clean water and food over an internet connection. But versus electricity, I’d go with the internet first.

8 Slocum February 2, 2009 at 3:24 pm

I’d much rather live without electricity–by which I mean grid-supplied, A/C current. On the boat, we get along just fine with an engine-recharged 12V battery bank to power a few reading lights, a couple fans, and our various kinds of electronics (including laptop with wireless internet). Cooking is with propane.

OTOH, if I lived near anybody running a portable generator, I’d want the the grid more — the constant noise those things make is *obnoxious*.

9 MW February 2, 2009 at 6:46 pm

Oh God, somebody mentioned a Stirling Engine. For my ME senior project, we looked at these as a possibility for harvesting unused coldness from an industrial process (we eventually recommended air conditioning the plant’s offices). While it supposedly created power without any fuel, the valves and other equipment were extremely expensive and the Carnot efficiency was actually quite small unless the temperature difference was on the order of 1000’s of degrees.

It’s a joke among ME professors that Stirling Engines are always the next thing. It will probably always stay that way.

10 StefanoC February 3, 2009 at 3:26 am

Note that electricity _alone_ doesn’t give any service. You need to buy fridges, tvs, ovens, etc. that, while cheap for us first-worders, may be outside the means of those poor Kenyans.

11 nyongesa February 3, 2009 at 7:47 am

Entasopia does not have electricity, and the rural electrification program for any region beyond the regional capital of Narok would be a waste of rescources. This typical masaai village is tiny, remote and pastoral in nature, so the economic bennefits given the costs involved would be marginal. That does not mean they have no power, for the local bar & grill will definetely have a generator, so will the cheifs office, etc. They also utilize kerosene and other fuels.

Power is far more tractionable to life improving productivity than information technology, e.g. power for pastuerization could save lives as well as water filtration for the brackish water of this region. All that said, I would not venture far down the power efficiency scale before I would transition to information technology becoming more important.

There is a strong argument that has been made in kenyan developmenat economics circles that the construction of arbitoirs in pastoral lands in east africa would the biggest bang for the buck in economic transformation of pastoralist. Bye the way to tie into the “African world war” thread. Withering towns like Entasopia are the real ground zero of the Pan African struggle, also playing out world wide, between marginaly more economicaly productive farmers, and pastoralists.

12 Teddy February 4, 2009 at 4:48 am

With the internet you have access to all the information and resources that can bring electricity to such rural communities and even the internet system is solar powered and it powers laptops for connectivity. I choose internet

13 Andrew Merrick February 11, 2009 at 8:11 pm

Realizing that electricity could provide for the more lower level Maslovian needs of a community, I can’t get past the idea that an education can rise people above the level they once knew as standard.

So, I say if there are the basic needs of clean water, food, shelter and government stability than I would for a a school room of crank powered XO’s. My gut feeling is that in short time those that became literate would start to resource knowledge for their own better well-being.

I hate to say this but then of course in time their problems will be less about quality of life and more about what we already worry about – digital security of our assets, percieved and real.


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