Powering GSM growth

Connecting 1,000 people a minute (18 per second, according to GSMworld.com), GSM service providers are fuelling the most rapid advance of a technology ever witnessed. It is progress that is closing the digital divide: the gap between communities that have access to advanced communications technologies and those that do not. A pivotal factor in maintaining this “connection momentum” is the need to extend reach in emerging markets to the remote towns and villages that house a good proportion of these countries’ populations.

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By  Administrator Published  December 31, 2006

Connecting rural markets creates a range of technical challenges, the most important being how to provide a robust and cost-efficient source of electricity to base stations. It is an issue discussed in this article, referencing the industry’s research into renewable energy to explain how the technology is primed to play a crucial role in powering the drive to connect another billion customers – a goal that is predicted to be achieved within the next five years. Most of the subscribers coming from emerging markets.

Global connections

New connections are now sprinting past the most impressive growth rates recorded in the US and Europe. In the Middle East, the mobile phone community will be 110 million strong by 2008 according to Madar Research while, in Africa, mobile customers grew from 60 million in 2003 to 113 million at the end of 2005, according to Blycroft Publishing. And competition to service the huge remaining market is intensifying – 86% of the adult population in this region is not connected.

The Asian mobile market has prospered too: 900 million people use mobiles there – a figure that is rising fast. The Gartner Group predicts that by 2010, China’s mobile subscriber base will expand at a compound rate of 11% a year (reaching 49% penetration) and India’s at 31% (to 32% penetration).

End-user demand is the primary factor behind the rapid expansion of global markets and it is complemented by liberal legislative environments as governments seek to energize economic activity: with every increase of 10 mobile phones per 100 people, GDP advances by 0.6% a year, according to a London Business School study of 92 countries in conjunction with Vodafone. And with a view to further encourage commerce and address incountry communications inequalities, many licence tenders decree that coverage must stretch beyond urban areas. Such clauses emphasise the importance of service reach in rural markets.

Take India – it has an estimated 650,000 villages that must be covered if predicted growth rates for new connections are to be attained. It is a demand that creates a number of technical hurdles, one of the most critical being how to power this expanding network coverage.

Powering Rural Sites

Waiting long periods for connection to the electricity grid – that then often provides an unreliable source to power cell sites – is a challenging issue faced by operators in rural locations. It is not surprising therefore, that many elect to power base stations using diesel generators. However, generators require regular and costly refuelling, a high level of maintenance, and are susceptible to theft; factors that can consume 66% of the cost of operating expenditure for cell sites in rural regions.

With these limitations in mind, it is clear that addressing the power hurdle requires original thinking, a demand that inspired the renewable power project to develop new power solutions for rural cell facilities. The programme was governed by the criteria that next generation facilities should be versatile, cost efficient (from both capital and operating expenditure viewpoints), robust, and tap into renewable local resources.

Solar science: Concerns about climate change have catalysed significant global investment in solar panel technology and cells designed for domestic and industrial use can be built into networks to drive base stations. An extensive range of panels is available. Options include timer systems linked to motorised swivels so that the cells follow the sun’s path. Where possible, vendors work with local solar suppliers (ensuring that regional commerce benefits from the build requirements) to tailor the optimum system based on climatic conditions. Modelling of local weather patterns will influence whether a larger static array or a smaller pointing device will be preferable with acquisition and running costs essential to the review.

Wind turbines: As with solar, wind power has evolved rapidly in recently years with turbines providing clean, affordable, and reliable generation capabilities.

Site surveys are very important as the topography dictates whether a larger tower with a smaller turbine or vice versa will produce the most energy. Strong cylindrical towers are available to mount the turbine and these can also house the mini or micro Base Transceiver Station (BTS).

The costs for wind turbines are falling on the back of strong global demand and, as well as providing a cost-effective power source, they can also be used to further benefit local communities. Where towers are installed in areas of very high wind levels, excess power can be fed into the local grid or directly to nearby villages and towns. Offering the resource at low or no cost can be an innovative component of a competitive tender submission.

Pico Hydropower: Pico hydroelectricity is also an increasingly effective means of power generation. Site surveys will calculate whether it is viable to divert water from nearby water sources. Springs can also be used to drive the station’s turbines while many emerging markets also experience high levels of seasonal rainfall that can be used at certain times of the year to generate power.

Bio-power: In recent years the availability of biofuel has moved from theory to reality. As well as lower emissions, the cost of producing the alcohol-based commodity is below that of gasoline and is expected to fall as subsidies forge a sustainable market.

Feasibility studies

Innovative power-generating technology is creating a strong economic case to extend the reach of GSM technology into rural areas. It does so at just the right time; licence tenders increasingly expect operators to eradicate the in-country inequalities between those that have access to telecommunications and those that do not. Also, as competition increases, operators are increasingly seeking to extend their coverage footprint to new subscribers.

As every installation and operating environment is unique, power supply issues must be addressed on a case-by-case basis.

The main connection: Access to the mains supply is commonly viewed as a more economic and robust option in comparison to off-grid alternatives. However, it is a misconception for three key reasons. Firstly, the integrity of the power supply in some emerging economies is a significant concern; in sub-Saharan Africa it is not unusual for there to be around 100 extended outages a year in many countries. Then there is securing the connection. Rightly, the priority of most utility firms is to build the grid out to villages and outlying towns. However, it can result in extensive delays: some operators have said that they have been kept waiting up to four years to be switched on. And thirdly, there is the cost of taking a spur from the grid to the station and building transformers for each facility. Costs for the connection range from US$30,000- US$100,000 plus, while a common figure divulged by operators is US$80,000.

Generators: Where sites are easily accessible by road, energy is often provided by generators. However, a cost of US$1,000 per site for a diesel refuel is not uncommon; a factor that is exacerbated by high maintenance requirements and the need to replace stolen equipment – a combination of issues that can render cell sites, whether in mainland Africa, Asia, or on island locations, unprofitable.

Biofuels: Refuelling, maintenance, and theft also hamper generators powered by biofuels too. So, although the commodity itself is cheaper, it is imperative that the overall cost of powering cell sites with generators is analysed in detail to ensure that the business case is truly viable.

The case for renewables: There are indications that renewable sources present a compelling alternative to grid and generator (both bio and diesel fuel) sources of electricity. The combination of vendor expertise in optimising cell site power requirements with the latest thinking in renewable energy, the study of alternative power sources has shown that solar cells and wind turbines are viable sources of power. The systems can drive a mid-sized base station, power its electric fencing (protecting the equipment from wildlife), and support a microwave installation too.

Where water is a viable resource, hydro can also be used alongside wind and solar – a small stream with a strong flow can support electricity generation requirements.

Once renewable systems are installed, maintenance requirements are negligible.

There is no refuelling to drain resources and only annual maintenance is required.

The technologies are also secure; wind and solar systems are mounted on strong structures within protected enclosures so are not susceptible to theft. But the most important aspect of renewable energy is that it provides a clean, robust, abundant, and very low-cost source of power.

The infrastructure currently requires an up-front investment that costs slightly more than installing a generator and is equivalent to a typical charge for connecting to an electricity grid. But over time these costs are quickly recouped. The expense of acquiring wind turbines and solar cells is falling rapidly too (within four years solar cells are predicted to cost half what they do now).

Connecting the next billion

The business case for renewable energy is powering from strong to unequivocal.

Along with highly efficient base stations, the technology is reducing the prohibitive cost of connecting the unconnected in key markets such as Asia where in the major countries 80-90% of the population live in rural areas, according to Ruralpoverty.org.

And with demand so strong, innovations in efficient power supply will be the pivotal factor in ensuring that the industry can meet its predicted target of connecting a billion people to digital communications in the next five years.

Motorola contributed this paper on ‘Powering GSM to the regions’.

MTN helps pioneer biofuels usage

South Africa’s MTN Group, the GSM Association and Ericsson have teamed up to establish biofuels as an alternative source of power for wireless networks in the developing world. The three organisations have set up a pioneering project in Nigeria to demonstrate the potential of biofuels to replace diesel as a source of power for mobile base stations located beyond the reach of the electricity grid.

In a pilot project, supported by expertise and funding from the GSMA’s Development Fund, Ericsson and MTN are setting up a pilot biodiesel-powered base station solution in Lagos and will later deploy biodieselfuelled base stations in rural regions of south eastern and south western Nigeria. The three organisations are setting up a supply chain designed to benefit the local population by sourcing a variety of locally produced crops and processing them into biofuel. Groundnuts, pumpkin seeds, jatropha and palm oil will be used in the initial pilot tests.

Biodiesel has several important advantages over conventional diesel as a power source for base stations. Biodiesel can be produced locally, creating employment in rural areas, while reducing the need for transportation, related logistics and security. Biodiesel has a much lower impact on the environment than conventional diesel. The cleaner burning fuel results in fewer site visits and also extends the life of the base station generator, reducing operator costs.

“The early adoption of biofuel-powered mobile networks would place Africa at the forefront of a new wave of innovation that is making mobile communications affordable and accessible across the developing world,” said Karel Pienaar, chief technology officer of the MTN Group.

The GSMA and Ericsson will draw on the findings of the pilot to help operators across the developing world determine whether they can use biodiesel to power their networks in rural areas. Such a development would have a direct impact on operators such as MTN across Africa.


“IT and telecoms are converging and it makes business sense for the two businesses to converge also”

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