Helping cellphone towers help themselves

iStockphoto.com Mobile phones are the lifeblood of economic and social networks in developing countries precisely because they don’t require the vast infrastructure of wires, cables and stations that traditional landline phones need to operate. They do, however, require cellular towers, which run on electricity—a scarce commodity in the more rural areas of developing nations. JACOB ...

603494_070309_celltower_05.jpg
603494_070309_celltower_05.jpg

iStockphoto.com

Mobile phones are the lifeblood of economic and social networks in developing countries precisely because they don't require the vast infrastructure of wires, cables and stations that traditional landline phones need to operate. They do, however, require cellular towers, which run on electricity—a scarce commodity in the more rural areas of developing nations.

JACOB SILBERBERG/Getty

iStockphoto.com

Mobile phones are the lifeblood of economic and social networks in developing countries precisely because they don’t require the vast infrastructure of wires, cables and stations that traditional landline phones need to operate. They do, however, require cellular towers, which run on electricity—a scarce commodity in the more rural areas of developing nations.

JACOB SILBERBERG/Getty

To compensate, at least two countries have developed novel, eco-friendly alternatives to a standard power grid for their cellular networks. In Namibia, a cell phone service provider is experimenting with hybrid wind/solar power cellular base stations to roll out service where a power grid doesn’t exist. While the effort won’t save any money, the key aim of cell companies is to beat the roll-out of traditional power grids by one to two years. It helps that, once they are set up, the stations run themselves:

In Namibia the turbine and solar panels will also be running the base station with traffic on it, the peripheral communications, vsat (satellite transmitter/receiver) and even the protective fencing around the site.” 

An experimental program in India, where the number of mobile subscribers is exploding but power is scarce, uses an interesting choice of feedstock for biofuel production instead of the wind/solar combination:

The scheme in India will use oil derived from plants such as cotton, a mahogany-like tree called neem and jatropha. Jatropha trees are already widely grown across India, specifically as a biofuel crop. The seeds of the plant are a traditional remedy for constipation.

And a parallel program is already underway in Lagos, Nigeria. But does all this work toward creating reliable mobile networks in the rural villages of Africa and South Asia really have an impact? Just ask the health workers in Rwanda—mobile networks there reduced the average response time between patient and health care worker from one month to a matter of seconds.

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