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Bellerose grad gets nod for solar-powered Internet

Nominated for ASET prize
2711 EngineerAward NAIT sup
INNOVATORS — NAIT students Abdallah Farah (left), Jacob Maxwell, Natasha Bergstrom-Baier, Steven Sager, and Spencer Tracy (right) have been nominated for an ASET Capstone Project of the Year Award for their work to develop a solar-powered wireless Internet system for remote regions. Tracy is a St. Albert resident and Bellerose graduate. ASET/Photo

This story originally said that Spencer Tracy had been nominated for an "engineering award." He has in fact been nominated for an engineering technologist award. The Gazette apologizes for the confusion.
After this story was published, ASET officials said that the award ceremony had been delayed to Dec. 13.

A Bellerose grad and former Gazette carrier has joined his brother as a nominee for a provincial engineering technologist award.

The Association of Science and Engineering Technology Professionals of Alberta (ASET) announced Nov. 23 that the solar-powered satellite Internet setup developed in part by St. Albert’s Spencer Tracy is one of this year’s finalists for the organization’s Capstone Project of the Year Award. The award itself celebrates the knowledge and innovation shown by Alberta’s 17,000 engineering technologists.

Tracy, a Bellerose grad and The Gazette’s October 2008 Carrier of the Month, was part of a team that developed a concept plan to use solar power and satellites to bring low-cost Internet access to remote regions. His brother, Jarod, has also been nominated for a Capstone award.

Internet access is an important source of entertainment for many and can also bring education and economic development to rural areas, Tracy said. But rural areas often struggle to get reliable Internet — hills, trees, and mountains block wireless signals, while sheer distance makes running power and fibre-optic lines expensive.

Tracy and Northern Alberta Institute of Technology teammates Jacob Maxwell, Natasha Bergstrom-Baier, Abdallah Farah, and Steven Sager realized that new developments in solar and satellite technology could be the answer.

Tracy said Maxwell, Bergstrom-Baier, and Farah developed the portable solar array and battery system to supply the power while he and Sager worked out how to tap into the Starlink satellite network and deliver the Internet access. (Starlink is a network of thousands of satellites deployed by SpaceX that provides wireless Internet access.)

“The biggest challenge was COVID-19,” Tracy said, as it limited the amount of time the team could spend together in the lab.

Starlink also wasn’t available in Edmonton when they started the project, so the team had to work with someone in B.C. to get the initial specs of the system. While they initially thought about putting Starlink receivers and solar panels on every home, they soon realized a single power unit and receiver with a Wi-Fi transmitter was a better idea, as that way everyone in a village could pay for it.

The team found the solar system could power this setup for about 24 hours. The system is mobile, and its components cost less than $10,000.

“It’s a lot cheaper than going through and building up a big solar plant and running fibre,” Tracy said.

Tracy said the team’s project was sponsored by the charity Light Up the World (a group that aims to bring solar power to remote communities), which has expressed interest in rolling out this solar/wireless Internet solution to developing nations.

In an email, ASET CEO Barry Cavanaugh said this project presents an ingenious solution to a long-standing problem.

“Everything changes when people have access to modern and immediate communication,” he said, yet there have been few meaningful efforts to bring such service to remote areas.

“It’s one thing to talk about how rural or remote areas need service. It’s another to do something about it.”

Tracy, who now works as a field technician with an Internet company, said he was honoured to receive this nomination.

This year’s Capstone Project of the Year winners will be announced the week of Dec. 13.

Kevin Ma

About the Author: Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.
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