News, views and commentary from the telecoms sector across emerging markets and developing countries worldwide

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Mobile operators - low TCO, smaller carbon footprint: the answer is blowing in the wind?

Wind/solar hybrid powered base station deployed by Avea: pic from Cellular News

By March this year, according to Informa Telecoms & Media, there existed over 4.1 billion mobile subscriptions globally. At the start of this decade, the number of global subs was just 482 million. Ten years earlier than that, there were fewer than 5 million subscriptions worldwide.

I feel proud to be associated with an industry that has grown so impressively, but am mindful of the challenges ahead as mobile operators seek to connect the next billion customers. These prospective subscribers are poor people with very restricted spending power. A popular argument put forward to explain factors responsible for keeping such people locked into poverty can be exemplified thus:
  • The earning potential of a semi-skilled handyman living in a shanty town on the fringes of a large African city is hampered by his not being able to advertise how he might be contacted by anyone wanting his services. He spends more time walking the streets asking for work than he does working and getting paid.
  • A farming community lives a largely subsistence lifestyle, growing crops to meet its own needs and selling the surplus to buy other vital goods and services. The farmers routinely fail to get the best price for this surplus because they have no way of finding out at which markets they they will find the highest levels of demand.
  • A person living in a remote community needs to register a birth or death in the family. The state bureaucracies have no touchpoint in the community so completion of this routine paperwork involves taking time away from productive activities to travel to a bigger population centre.
All of these problems can be resolved through access to telephony and/or the Internet. The handyman can write his mobile number and details of the services he offers on signs, placing these at road junctions or other prominent locations. I saw a lot of this kind of hand-made advertising on my recent trip to Kenya. With (mobile?) Internet access - or even just by making a few calls - the farming community can review market information and send its produce to where the best price can be commanded. In a small, isolated community provided with some form of Internet access, e-government solutions may obviate the need for long, expensive, time-consuming journeys.

Communications services, then, look set to have a vital role in alleviating this poverty. This role has been quite neatly explained by The Next Billion Network, an initiative incubated at the MIT Media Lab. The phrase used in the this group's mission statement is about deploying innovative mobile technologies which help poor people in developing countries to "reduce friction in their local markets from the bottom up". The Next Billion Network's founders believe that these new waves of mobile subscribers will make their voices heard—and connect to the global information network. "This will unleash a wave of entrepreneurship, collaboration and wealth creation, turning the newly connected into a powerful force in the world economy," the founders say, adding that "the kind of world that emerges from this transformation will depend on our ability to recognize it as an opportunity."

For mobile operators to continue to act as a catalyst for developments of this kind, they will need to resolve a number of challenges around keeping the total cost of service ownership low for poorer people in developing countries. These challenges are many and varied. The one referred to in the title of this post is around powering mobile networks in locations lacking reliable electricity grid infrastructure.

In emerging markets, cost-conscious operators have long been concerned about the OPEX implied by running diesel-powered generators to power off-grid base stations. The fuel itself must be bought and operators must also take fuel transportation costs into account - significant costs when fuel must be supplied to remote areas with poor roads

Solar power and wind power look like good alternatives - the power sources themselves are free and inexhaustible. Added to that, CSR-conscious telcos can bask in positive press coverage of their reduced carbon footprint.

In September last year, however, I read that trials of these technologies have largely been quite disappointing. My former Informa Telecoms & Media colleague Matthew Reed, the editor of Middle East and Africa Wireless Analyst, reported disatisfaction on the part of the GSM Association with the trialing of base stations powered by the sun and wind. The GSMA's Development Fund Director Dawn Haig-Thomas said: "There have been a number of trials that have failed, and we've been digging into the reasons," adding that "we've seen trials where the geography hasn't been correctly considered – where solar panels and wind turbines have been placed in inappropriate places, or not in optimum places."

In addition, Matt Reed reports, "many sites are also missing electronic control devices that manage power fluctuations or alert systems that tell operators to switch on backup diesel generators, if the base station is low on power, perhaps because it has not been windy or sunny enough."

Further, Matt writes, a big reason for the lack of take-up of alternative energy sources is that although operating costs might be low, the solar panels and wind turbines have historically been too expensive. In addition, notes Matt, "lots of solar panels were needed to power a base station, which would force operators to buy more land on which to site them." Wind generators, until recently, he notes, "were only manufactured with massive turbines that were more appropriate for wind farms than for small base stations."

Matt observed, however, that better solutions are becoming available. A number of deployments of wind and solar powered base stations have been announced in the month's following Matt's article. I have to assume that these deployments involve solutions to the kinds of problems Matt raised.

The most recent one that I know about is the deployment by Turkish mobile operator Avea of what it claims is the first hybrid wind/solar powered base station in the country - manufactured by Scottish firm Proven Energy. A Cellular News piece on this story this week quotes Erol Barendregt, Director of Turkish reseller Girasolar Türkiye, which installed the equipment: "The hybrid solution is the best option because the sun and wind resources have opposite cycles and intensities during the day. Wind and solar power are understood to be among the best natural alternatives to fuel based electricity generation. By using both in a system that is designed to supplement each other you get a continuous and reliable power supply."

Major telco sector vendors want a piece of the action in this space. In October, Ericsson, for example, unveiled a wind-powered 'Tower Tube' base concept developed in partnership with Vertical Wind and Uppsala University in Sweden. According to a Global Mobile Daily article at the time, vertical rotor blades work silently, minimising the load on the tower during operation.

A more recent announcement by the Swedish vendor, made in February, concerns its involvement in the development of solar-powered base stations. A GMD article dated February 18 notes that the Orange-branded mobile operator in Guinea is to deploy 100 solar powered base stations across the African country, in partnership with Ericsson. The base stations, says the article, make use of Ericsson's energy-efficient hybrid diesel-battery solution and solar panels, which will replace one of a base station site's diesel generators with a bank of specially designed batteries capable of handling a large amount of charging and discharging.

Chinese vendor Huawei also has solar powered solutions on offer. GMD reported in September that the company had deployed Pakistan's first solar powered base station for Warid Telecom, thereby enabling the operator to extend its network reach into remote areas of the country with limited access to the electricity grid.

Sri Lanka's Dialog Telekom has opted for a mix of solar and wind-powered base stations in trials designed to investigate the uses of several forms of equipment from eight different vendors. This was reported by GMD in February.

So there seem to be a few renewable energy developments going on in emerging markets worldwide. I could not comment to what degree these recent deployments and trials have addressed the concerns raised last year by the GSMA.


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