Cheap solar telephony for rural villages

A 4-year-old tech company came out of stealth mode last month to announce its new, affordable method of bringing mobile networks to rural regions of the world.

The most challenging component in expanding mobile telephony to poorer areas is finding a way to cover the cost of installing mobile transmission towers, or base stations. VNL, an Indian company that calls itself a microtelecom equipment maker, has designed base stations that cost about $3,500 each, rather than the minimum of $10,000 per base station seen for conventional systems. They have signed an agreement to begin testing their systems in northern India.

According to BusinessWeek, each station is powered by solar energy and uses as much energy as a 100-watt lightbulb. That amounts to one-sixth the amount of energy required by competing renewable-powered stations. The company also claims that its installation costs are far lower because the stations are designed to be simple for unskilled staff to install. They are accompanied by Ikea-style manuals with pictograms and labels.

With former Indian telecom execs at its helm, VNL is poised to energize the market for telephony in rural India. They’re not alone—all the major telecoms are developing base stations for emerging markets, but VNL’s CEO Anil Raj notes that his company is the only one solely focused on deploying affordable networks, rather than designing a fast, top-of-the-line service that can run on renewable energy. As the company describes it, they’ve ‘re-engineered plain vanilla’ mobile infrastructure to work completely independently of the power grid. They say that each station, which can support 500 users, will require the following maintenance (pdf): “top up the batteries every three months; update software remotely and perform simple swap repairs if needed.” The company doesn’t go into detail about the base stations’ battery packs – presumably they are sufficient to provide nighttime mobile connectivity, and presumably they can be recharged without a grid connection.

VNL may be a company to watch: whether it ends up installing its own networks across poorer areas or whether it gets bought out by an established company eager to expand into untapped areas, it seems that the telecom world is making decent strides towards cheap, green mobile telephony.