Motorola Pursues Alternative Energy Sources for Cellular

By Michael Barbella — February 28, 2007

As part of its efforts to expand into emerging markets, Motorola plans to test a system that would harness wind and solar energy to power GSM cellular sites in remote rural areas.

Teaming with the GSM Association (GSMA), an organization that represents mobile phone operators around the world, and MTC Namibia, a mobile communications provider, the trial is expected to run from April to July in Namibia , a country on the southwest coast of Africa where there are just six telephones for every 100 people.

Second only to Mongolia , Namibia is one of the least densely populated countries on Earth. " Namibia is a huge country with only 2 million people--to get power to rural areas is very expensive," says Joachen Traut, an MTC Namibia executive.

MTC Namibia will run the alternative power system at a cellular site already in operation; after the test period, that site will remain a part of MTC Namibia's current wireless network.

Touted as the first-ever test of an alternative energy source on a live (cellular) network, the three-month trial is being conducted to determine the feasibility of a solar- or wind-powered cellular site and the impact of factors such as dust on solar panels and the effects of weather.

Last year, Motorola conducted a trial of alternative power technology at its Swindon offices in the United Kingdom and concluded that a combination of solar cells and wind turbines can generate 1,200 watts in a continual cycle--enough to drive a mid-sized base station and support a backup system transmitted by microwaves to handle additional network traffic.

"Off-grid connectivity is a key challenge for operators, in particular in developing world markets, and until cost-effective, practical solutions are commonplace, the digital divide will persist," says Dawn Hartley, development fund manager at the GSMA. "The GSMA is committed to piloting alternative energies for powering base stations."

Using alternative power sources makes it easier and more cost-effective for carriers such as Motorola to provide wireless service to people living in areas that have little existing infrastructure. The alternative power sources also are ideal for areas where there are no main telephone grid connections available, or in places where electricity tariffs are expected to rise sharply.

Wind- and solar -powered systems, once installed, require minimal maintenance, Motorola officials said. These systems--unlike diesel-driven generators--also are not prone to theft.

"In areas such as central Africa , operators can spend as much as two-thirds of their operating costs on diesel power," said Mohammad Akhtar, VP of global product management GSM/UMTS at Motorola Sales and Services. "Using eco-powered BTS can help operators lower operating costs. This reduction in operating expenditure can be critical for operators in emerging markets when building networks that reach customers in remote locations."

Though diesel generators are cheaper to install, they are expensive to operate. Bio-diesel power systems have been tested by Ericsson, but they need to be refueled--a problem that is easily solved with wind and solar energy.

Jose Ferreira, managing director of MTC Namibia, said he is confident the alternative power trial will help his company provide wireless network coverage to the most desolate reaches of Namibia . "Motorola's innovation and design expertise will enable wind and solar solutions to be deployed in an optimal format for wireless cellular networks.

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