Boulder Gets Solar-Powered Wi-Fi

By Naomi Graychase

August 08, 2005

The vision of an ex-military contractor for deploy-anywhere, run-anytime wireless network equipment has come true, and the first spot to utilize it is... a shopping mall.

Things have suddenly gotten very busy at Lumin Innovative Products in Boulder, Colorado. On July 15th, 18 months after the company formed around co-founder Ben Adams’s concept for solar-powered Wi-Fi networks, Lumin deployed its first access points at the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder. Since that successful launch, the four-person staff has been deluged with inquiries from press, people looking for work, potential investors, and prospective clients.

Lumin’s first-generation product is the LightWave AP-1000 solar-powered access point, which comes in two models, single and dual. The Pearl Street deployment utilizes four dual units, each of which is located out of sight on a well-chosen rooftop, and features two hinged solar panels. (The single unit LightWave includes only one panel.) While each access point has a potential range of up to 30 miles, this deployment, which only covers a six-block area, required four APs due to the number of trees interfering with line-of-sight along the cobblestoned outdoor mall.

The decision to bring free Wi-Fi to Pearl Street [though not the first solar-powered Wi-Fi in the country, as was pointed out by Daily Wireless], was made by the Downtown Boulder Business Improvement District. Lumin designed the units with more remote areas in mind, locations where there is little or no available power—obviously not the case in downtown Boulder. But the environmentally-friendly power source enticed the Pearl Street planners into becoming the first clients. The network cost $10,000 to deploy, but upkeep costs will essentially be nil. The rechargeable batteries need to be swapped out every so often, but the solar panels are built to run for 25-30 years.

The science behind LightWave is actually quite simple. “Basically, you open the solar panels, they charge the batteries, and the batteries power the system,” says Lumin co-founder Sally Lyon.

While the weather in Boulder is beautiful much of the year, it’s not the kind of place one might think of as a prime location for solar-powered equipment. Cloudy, rainy, snowy, and overcast days are normal. But, says Lyon, the notion that solar panels must be located somewhere with direct sun year-round is a misconception.

“The solar panels are so sophisticated that we can register a charge from the moon,” says Lyon. “It’s a myth that it can only be used in the Southwest. In the complete, pitch black night is the only time when there’s no charge. On a cloudy day, it’s charging.”

It only takes five hours of direct sun—or the cumulative equivalent amount of light over a longer period of time—to charge the battery completely. A fully-charged battery can power one LightWave for 72 hours.

“Even if you were in a complete snowstorm for a couple of days, you’ve still got a system running,” says Lyon. “The reality is, for all practical purposes, it’s a reliable system with an abundant energy source, and in the long term, it’s extremely cost-effective.”

Because a 100 percent solar-powered network will continue to run even when electricity is out, and LightWave offers enterprise level security, it has obvious “homeland security” and emergency management uses.

“When power’s out, the first 24 hours can be crucial to saving lives,” says Lyon. “If the system is already in place, and if a disaster strikes and takes out power, our network will still be operational. They are also very portable, so if FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] has a supply of them, they can move into an area that has lost power and set it up very quickly, mobilize search and rescue, do resource management. The infrastructure would already be in place, it could be functioning with VoIP all the time. For instance, the tsunami area… it would have made a major difference in that area. There are smaller examples all over the world.”

Currently, the company is seeking its next round of funding. The R&D phase was funded by the founders' own resources, along with micro loans from friends and family.

“We told people it would work, but now there’s a third-party endorsement, we're looking for a pretty major infusion of capital,” says Lyon.

Adams, Lumin’s co-founder and Chief Technology Officer, has a military background along with several months of civilian service during “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” both of which sparked his interest in making portable and secure wireless networks possible in desert or other remote conditions.

“The last thing he was doing before he left the military,” says Lyon, “was building a network for a training in the middle of the desert… He was tasked to do this, but how do you build a network with no power source? He couldn’t find anything on the market, so he ended up just sort of putting together a system off a rental car battery, with the antenna on the roof. While he was roasting in the desert, he thought, ‘If I only had a solar panel.’”

It seems Adams has made his wish come true. But the company isn’t stopping there.

“Our mission,” says Lyon, “is to explore and expand the realm of global communication. We want to empower people and connect them in ways they never before imagined. And we mean all people. We think this technology in the developing world, in terms of information and health care, it just makes sense… Where power is a luxury, we can bring everything to a place like that, because this technology allows us to create networks that have unlimited possibilities.”

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