BARCELONA // People in even the remotest corners of the Middle East will soon be able to access the internet and mobile networks at lower cost due to a solar-powered telecommunications tower made by Vihaan Networks Limited (VNL). The Indian telecoms company is set to roll out its all-in-one system, which uses fewer resources than a traditional GSM base station at a significantly lower cost.
The equipment is designed to operate independently of the electrical grid and aimed at bringing mobile technology to more than 2 billion people in rural communities around the world. Its telecoms towers weigh less than 1 tonne and are equipped with two solar panels to generate electricity and a re-engineered GSM hardware system to provide mobile access to about 1,000 villagers, said Manoj Tiwari, the assistant to the chairman of the Indian telecoms company Shyam, which owns VNL.
"Are there no roads to that area? No problem. Is there no power in that area? No problem. Is there still no resources in that area? We don't need them," Mr Tiwari said last week at the Mobile World Congress. "This system could be set up by anybody. The one we have right here was put up by a lady in our marketing department." Mr Tiwari said VNL was in discussions with operators in Africa and the Middle East to make the stations available following successful trials in about 50 Indian villages. He declined to identify the operators, citing confidentiality clauses.
"We're in talks everywhere," he said. "There are many opportunities we can work with." Mobile companies face big challenges when they move from urban markets into rural areas, where infrastructure is poor. Things taken for granted in towns and cities, such as a reliable power supply, are often a problem. And customers in remote villages are often unable to spend as much on mobiles as users in the city.
In India, about 151 million people are classified as rural subscribers, or about 30 per cent of the market. Globally, 71 per cent of the next 1 billion mobile users will come from rural areas, figures from the telecoms consultancy Pyramid Research showed. George Appling, a partner at the consultancy Booz & Co, said in a recent report that as operators looked for new markets in developing countries, controlling costs such as those for building and maintaining networks would become crucial, with competition continuing to shrink profits.
"The goal, ultimately, is to free up cash and resources for further investment in strategic assets, such as new services, new technologies and new business models that will truly differentiate players from their competitors," Mr Appling said. Traditional base stations cost as much as US$250,000 (Dh918,250) each plus maintenance charges for a 3 kilowatt per hour system. VNL's system costs about $15,000 and requires only 50 watts per hour to operate, said Mr Tiwari.
"It's a new way of deploying telecoms service in rural areas," he said. "You're talking about 2 million people who do not have access to telecoms services in the way that you and I do, simply because power is not a constraint." Telecoms companies are increasingly looking at more environmentally effective solutions to operate mobile networks, an energy-intensive industry. In India, mobile operators in India burn an estimated 1.8 billion litres of diesel a year generating electricity for their networks, Mr Tiwari said.
"Everyone's doing something," he said. "Renewables as a way to power your base station is a concept that is very much entrenched." VNL has won praise from the magazines Fast Company and Time, as well as from the World Economic Forum, for its work. The GSM Association, the worldwide telecoms industry body, recognised VNL with its latest award for the "best green programme product of initiation" for "its technology that could potentially change the lives of millions of people".