The power cable is holding us back

power I spent some time over the weekend chatting with my friend Eric Warnke, who owns and operates the Third on Whyte Internet cafe here in Edmonton. We talked about a bunch of things, but mostly about wireless mesh networks. I’ve been writing about “wireless everywhere” for over five years now (since Imagine Cup 2003 to be exact), and Eric is one of those guys who is actually making it happen.

Eric has been experimenting with both the Meraki and Open Mesh technologies recently. There are others available as well, and we briefly brainstormed about creating our own little devices. The technology for extending 802.11g wireless is actually surprisingly simple and mature. And on the horizon of course, is WiMax and a host of other emerging technologies.

The problem with all of them, is power.

Even if the hardware becomes extremely energy efficient, each part still requires at least a little bit of power. The obvious solution for a mesh network with nodes located outdoors is to use solar panels, except that Edmonton’s climate is very unfriendly to such an idea (and don’t forget that solar panels are still relatively inefficient). That leaves us with either batteries or a power cable.

The main problem with batteries at the moment is that they need to be quite large if you want them to last for any reasonable about of time. Think of a laptop battery or the battery for an electric drill – each is about four times the size of the wireless components, and probably ten times the weight. Then there’s the problem of replacing the batteries when they die, or changing them when they need recharging.

So we’re stuck with the power cable. Despite all the technological progress we’ve made over the last 100 years, we’re still tethered by the power cable.

The first two chapters of Nicholas Carr’s book The Big Switch provide an extremely engaging history of Henry Burden, Thomas Edison, Samuel Insull, and the other individuals who were instrumental in making electricity the utility it is today. I like this part in particular:

Unlike lesser inventors, Edison didn’t just create individual products; he created entire systems. He first imagined the whole, then he built the necessary pieces, making sure they all fit together seamlessly.

Of course, Edison’s DC system eventually lost out to the superior AC. Still, I can’t help but think that we desperately need a modern day Edison. Just as Edison re-imagined urban gaslight systems, we need someone to re-imagine the modern electrical system.

Is wireless energy transfer the answer? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s better to start with a question – how can we eliminate the need for contact? Or at least make that contact less restrictive? For instance, instead of connecting a wireless node to a cable inside a lamppost, why can’t I just stick the node on the lamppost itself? That would be a good first step.

We need “power everywhere” before we’ll ever get to “wireless everywhere”. Unfortunately, batteries, solar panels, and other technologies aren’t getting us any closer to that reality at the moment. Surely there must be something else then?

3 thoughts on “The power cable is holding us back

  1. Meraki units don’t need much power – would be cool if we could do with 802.11 what you can with power-over-USB. But unlikely 😦

    Coordinator, Free Australia Wireless

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