Today, nearly half of the global population lack access to the Internet, while over a billion people live without electricity. In early 2018, a multi-disciplinary consortium of partners began to solve the problem in the Fusion Grid project, which has received 1.5 million euros in funding from the BEAM program by Business Finland. In addition to providing funding, the BEAM program brought together the partners, Lappeenranta University of Technology, Aalto University, Nokia, GreenEnergy Finland, and University Properties of Finland Ltd.
In sparsely populated areas of developing countries, the construction of large-scale communications infrastructure of a conventional power grid is not financially profitable. As a solution, the Fusion Grid project has developed a lightweight and modular concept, in which a 4G LTE micro base station by Nokia is integrated to a self-sustaining energy production and storage system powered by solar panels and batteries. The system can produce electricity for the base station and the residents' needs. At night and on cloudy days, the station uses energy collected in the batteries in order to keep electricity and the 4G connection running around the clock.
Fusion Grid also plans to bring digital services and tools to sparsely populated areas and customize them to meet the better needs of locals. In the project, Aalto University studies and develops digital services and user interfaces and their accessibility.
"Thanks to its self-sufficient energy production and storage, the micro base station functions as a so-called off-grid system. With access to power, mobile Internet connection and new digital services, locals can, for instance, create new business in remote villages, far from the nearest city," says Antti Pinomaa, postdoctoral researcher at LUT University.
"We started out with simple issues, such as a refrigerator and lighting. A refrigerator preserves the cold chain and gives opportunities for business through selling food to villagers, for example," says Marko Nieminen, Professor of Computer Science at Aalto University.
Digital services may be related to job searching, education and digital learning environments. A working Internet connection also opens the door for setting up an online store and arranging services related to orders and deliveries.
"In order for the services to be used, it is essential that we understand the local environment. Because there may be a lack of people with technical skills, education is an important part of the concept. The services must be designed to allow village communities to use and maintain them independently," Nieminen says.
The Fusion Grid pilot project will be launched on 6 December in Namibia in the village of Oniipa, coinciding with Finland's independence day. The pilot will run until summer 2020, with the goal of collecting data on the effects of electrification and the micro base station on its use environment and the local community.
"We collect data on what the situation was before, and what changes have taken place over six months thanks to access to power and the Internet. The pilot study gives us an understanding of how the project should move forward. Our intention is to continue the work after next summer," Pinomaa says.
In the future, the base station will be offered in the form of an easy-to-use consumer product. Before this, the project must determine the business model that would allow the system to be competitively priced and capable of being adopted as widely as possible in developing countries. The project estimates that as many as 3 billion people could benefit from the solution.
According to Pinomaa and Nieminen, the role of Business Finland has been invaluable in the project. In particular, the network of partners from different sectors has helped ensure success.
"Fusion Grid could not have been possible without Business Finland, as in the early stages of the project, BF actively guided the different parties in working together. LUT University brought on board its expertise on micronetworks and Aalto University on digital services, while Nokia supplied the 4G LTE micro base station and GreenEnergy Finland the solar panel and battery system. University Properties of Finland, in turn, has focused on developing digital learning environments important for the project's practical applications," Nieminen says.