APAC's Green Power Play

It's a long way from the sexy end of the mobile market, but the supply and management of power for mobile base stations was one of the hottest topics at CommunicAsia last week.

Operators and vendors revealed the different ways they are working to lower the cost of power, which, according to Rajiv Mehotra, chairman of Indian telecom equipment vendor Vihaan Networks Ltd. (VNL) , accounts for 32 percent of an operator's operating costs.

VNL launched its WorldGSM solar powered base stations, designed to bring the solar option into mainstream use for rural deployments. There are two versions: a village base station with a range of 2km that can run off just 50W and a rural unit that has a longer range -- 5 to 6km -- and requires as little as 160W.

To put this in perspective, these are levels more commonly associated with powering domestic light bulbs. A typical base station takes 2 to 3kW, which is right at the limit of financial viability for solar options, according to the GSMA. New base stations have pushed this to less than 1kW, but this still requires a lot of solar panels.

Marko Lius, head of Asia/Pacific strategic marketing for Nokia Networks , agrees, saying it requires a large room full of solar panels to meet base station site power demands. He also says that, while solar technology is improving, it isn't moving at a rate adequate to change this dramatically. Therefore, the means of making widespread deployment of solar-powered base stations viable will have to come from reducing further the power requirements at base station sites.

The VNL announcement is therefore highly significant. It has reduced the number of solar panels needed to power the base transceiver station (BTS) from around 70 to just two. Mehotra says this was achieved through five years of intense engineering to design from scratch a no-frills GSM product that would use as little power as possible. To that end, VNL uses consumer electronic components that are designed for low power consumption.

This not only reduces the operational cost but also the capital cost. At $15,000 per site for the village solution that includes BTS, solar panels, battery, and antenna, VNL's products are priced at a level below traditional base stations. This also opens up a new business model. VNL is targeting the WorldGSM products at local entrepreneurs that are given franchises by operators, as well as the operators themselves.

Mehotra also claims this new base station requires no additional power supply and incurs almost no operating expenses. In fact, Mehotra says, the only operational cost is created by a weekly visit to the BTS site to clean the solar panels.

As for the age-old question for solar solutions -- how they cope when the sun doesn't shine -- VNL claims that WorldGSM can operate for at least 65 hours with no power input and over 72 hours in cloudy weather, thus negating the need for backup power sources.

VNL will first target its home market of India where the limitations of the national electricity grid mean that diesel generators are the primary source of power for the country's base stations.

According to GSMA figures, rural areas of India that are connected to the grid average 14 hours of power outages per day. Urban areas also suffer persistent outages, and together, that means Indian operators use around two billion liters of diesel and pump millions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere.

Mehotra is also the founder of Shyam Telecom Ltd. , and he and his management team have extensive experience in the Indian telecom sector. This will provide much of the credibility a new vendor needs to sell to operators in India, and VNL already has secured contracts with passive infrastructure provider, Quippo Telecom Infrastructure Ltd. Outside of India, Mehotra says, VNL is looking for partners to break into markets including Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam.

VNL is the first to launch "power lite" base stations, but reducing power is high on the agenda of most vendors. Light Reading has learned that a major BTS vendor is close to releasing a product that will significantly reduce the power required by the battery air conditioning unit associated with BTS units. This uses as much if not more power than the BTS itself.

In a similar vein, Dato' Jamaludin Ibrahim, CEO of Axiata Group Berhad (formerly TM International), tells Light Reading that by turning off the air conditioning for its base stations, his company has saved considerably on its power-related costs. "It's not particularly exciting, but it's been effective," he says. Ibrahim says that Axiata was given assurances that the base stations would still work effectively, and it has found that to be the case.

For more on rural connectivity challenges in India, see A Guide to India's Telecom Market.

— Catherine Haslam, Asia Editor, Light Reading

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