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Imagine a city where every lamp post provided wireless internet access, solar-powered street lighting and a power point to charge your mobile phone. You might expect to find this in a sophisticated western city – but it will actually appear first in Africa.
Starsight (Starsightproject.com) is a project designed to supercharge street lighting and power in developing counties. Essentially it is a network of pylons, each with a solar panel, linked not by cables but by antennae which use wireless internet protocol.
The Starsight idea came out of the involvement of London-based sustainable development specialist the Kolam Partnership in an urban street lighting initiative in Cameroon.
Reliable street lighting can help a country to develop – a study by the Kenyan government recently found that street lighting reduced crime by 65 per cent. The benefits are even more widespread – aid workers and foreign businesses are more likely to stay on in a country if they feel secure.
But the Cameroon project needed to be able to turn the street lighting on and off remotely without hard-wired connections.
Putting a mobile phone into every pylon was impractical so Kolam brought in UK mobile expert Steve Flaherty.
He came up with the idea of employing wireless internet, or WiFi. “It meant we could not only monitor the pylons remotely but provide blanket broadband internet access,” he says.
A Starsight pylon can use a WiFi or WiMax (long-range wireless internet) and be connected to almost any kind of peripheral.
A street light is the first choice, but it could be a Tsunami warning siren system, a CCTV camera or a pollution monitor.
It could even provide a power outlet at its base, to power a conventional phone or one using Voice-over-IP.
And that power socket has more spin-offs. One study puts the number of night-time street vendors at 40m across Africa – and almost all of them use paraffin lamps. a power outlet at the base of a Starsight pylon could resell power to these vendors – which they could use to light, to cook or to charge mobile phones.
That could cut carbon emissions for the continent, according to Mr Flaherty.
At this point it became clear that Starsight was not going to be just any old street lighting system. Africa is swinging towards mass urbanisation as people flee a war-torn or starving countryside, and infrastructure is increasingly important.
A technology to roll out green energy street lighting along with telecommunications and power could well be the great leap forward for which Africa is looking.
Yannick Gaillac, founding partner of the Kolam Partnership, is enthusiastic: “This project will definitely change lives for the poorest people in the world and that’s what I wanted to do. We didn’t invent these basic technologies, but we are gathering them together in one solution.”
Aside from its infrastructure aspect, Starsight will have also have an educational spin-off.
A planned series of internet cafes will run along the 200 pylon network in Douala, providing training courses to educate local people in basic information technology skills, using the wireless internet access provided by the pylons.
The potential benefits do not stop there. Starsight costs about the same as a normal street lighting system to install but no underground copper cabling – which anyway is often stolen – is needed and wireless telecommunications and electric power is thrown in.
Official backers of the project, other than the Cameroon government, so far include the Commonwealth Business Council and the British government.
Starsight is is a 50-50 joint partnership between the Kolam Partnership and Singapore wireless firm based Next-G, which will make the pylons.
Starsight is one of the latest in a widening field of green energy projects by developed world companies, incentivised by the market created by carbon trading under the Kyoto protocol.
There are also Corporate Social Responsibility points to be won from ethical mutual funds.
If the Cameroon test is successful, Morocco, China and India could be next on the cards for Starsight – and even European outposts like the Scottish Highlands.