It’s called synergy, combining the technology of solar cells with the technology of a low wattage cell-phone base station. It’s also called ‘microtelecom’ – a telephone network built with minimal requirements for energy, technical knowhow, and money. An example is the work of VNL in Haryana, India, which is rolling out its ambitious “WorldGSM” cellular phone network with 100 Watt base stations powered by solar energy. In the rural parts of the world where 1.5 billion people live in areas without electrical service – bringing phone service through this melding of technologies is both revolutionary and potentially profitable.
There’s an interesting parallel between the highly successful concept of microfinance and microtelecom. In fact, there’s also a direct (phone) connection. Microfinance was developed in the 1970’s by Dr. Muhammad Yunus, a professor of economics at the University of Chittagong (India). He learned that making very small loans (often less than $25US) could make a vast difference to people living in poverty, particularly in rural areas. Traditional banks did not – and because of expenses, could not – service this type of micro-loan. So Dr. Yunus founded a new kind of bank, the Grameen Rural Bank, in 1983. Dedicated to dispersing loan money through many individuals, rather than institutions; the Grameen bank has spawned an industry with over 100 million customers and $2.5 billion in loans by 2006. That was the year Dr. Yunus and Grameen Bank were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
During the course of its development, the Grameen Bank learned of another powerful source of support for the people engaged in microfinance – the telephone. The arrangements, confirmations, and follow-up for micro-loans were often negotiated via cellular telephone – where it was available. Unfortunately, traditional cellular phone service is costly to install, and relatively costly to maintain. Without direct subsidy, most poor people could not afford the service. (Land line telephone is also rare in many rural regions, and equally expensive.)
This is where the microtelecom idea steps in. Until recently the cost of solar panels to reach about 100 Watt capacity was too great for small cellular base stations, but as solar production facilities have ramped up in India, China, and elsewhere, costs are much less of a barrier. VNL put together its microtelecom concept from four simple principles: Low Power: 100 Watts or less per base station, all solar power. No electrical grid or generator necessary. Low cost: Must cost a fraction of traditional GSM (Global System for Mobile communications) base stations so that phone use can be profitable at very low user-densities. Self-deploying: The whole base station should pack into two carts and be installable by unskilled field staff, who may also be illiterate. No buildings, power lines, air conditioning, or complex instrumentation. As the company says, “Just point it South and turn it on.” Near-Zero Maintenance: Software is installed and maintained remotely. Hardware repairs are done by simple swap of components.
These four principles have been largely accomplished, at least for a demonstration of 50 base stations in India. (VNL was awarded “Technology Pioneers 2010” by the World Economic Forum, Davos, Switzerland.) The network is voice-only as it was pointed out most of the customers are analphabet, much less computer literate. The availability of cheap cell-phone handsets, many ‘imported’ from Western countries, is a key factor in the success of the network. VNL installs its base stations in what it calls the ‘Cascading Star Architecture’ using village roads to layout ‘Rural Base Stations’, which then feed to slightly larger ‘Village Base Stations.’ You can tell from its web site that VNL has ambitions, a good story, and some products. Now all it needs to do is work out the delivery, cost, and profitability for servicing millions of “the disconnected.”