Solar offers answer for Africa's telecoms electricity shortages

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Africa has seen a mobile telecoms boom with subscribers numbers ballooning as users access communications services that were denied them by the limited fixed infrastructure. Users in cities have been the main beneficiaries up to now, but African operators hope that base stations powered by renewable energy will help them overcome the lack of electricity supply in the countryside.

Electricity supply in Africa is patchy at the best of times and in many rural areas there is no access to the power grid. Operators deploying a rural mobile network need to rely on diesel generators to power the base stations. Not only is this an inefficient and dirty way of generating electricity, it also gives operators the headache of managing and supplying diesel fuel across the country. To compound their difficulties, the price of diesel fuel is going through the roof, making it expensive for them to service low-return customers.

Renewable energy may just provide them with the answer. Indian company VNL has just launched a low-cost solar-powered base station that would be ideal for African operators. The base station is powered by 2-8 m2 solar panel and has a backup battery that is also charged by the sun. All the equipment, including the mobile switching center (MSC) and base station controller (BSC) packs into two trucks and doesn't need to be installed by a specialist engineer.

VNL aren't the only company with renewables-powered mobile infrastructure, Swedish company Flexenclosure provides a solar and wind powered base station, and even mainstream equipment suppliers such as Ericsson and Nokia are in on the act. Getting communications services to the countryside is more than just sustaining the growth rates of African mobile operators, it vital to bridge the digital divide.

Anthony Plewes

After a Masters in Computer Science, I decided that I preferred writing about IT rather than programming. My 20-year writing career has taken me to Hong Kong and London where I've edited and written for IT, business and electronics publications. In 2002 I co-founded Futurity Media with Stewart Baines where I continue to write about a range of topics such as unified communications, cloud computing and enterprise applications.