Three influential organisations have come together in a pioneering experiment aimed at expanding the coverage available to mobile customers.
Both Ericsson and MTN, as commercial interests, along with mobile sector lobbyists the GSM Association (GSMA), have identified the potential that biofuels hold for just this purpose.
The three organisations have set up their novel project in Nigeria to demonstrate the potential of biofuels to replace diesel as a source of power for mobile base stations located beyond the reach of local electricity grids. In their opinion, the finished product, biodiesel, has several important advantages over conventional diesel as a power source for base stations.
Firstly, biodiesel can be produced locally, creating employment in rural areas, while reducing the need for transportation, related logistics and security. Biodiesel, secondly, has a much lower impact on the environment than conventional diesel. The cleaner burning fuel results in fewer site visits and also extends the life of the base station generator, reducing operators' costs.
Financial 'fuel' for the project comes from the GSMA's Development Fund, together with the GSMA's existing expertise. Ericsson and MTN are uniting to set up the base station for the solution in Lagos, and will later deploy biodiesel-fueled base stations in rural regions within both South-Eastern and South-Western Nigeria. All three organisations are establishing a supply chain designed to benefit the local population by sourcing a variety of locally-produced crops and processing them into biofuel. Groundnuts, pumpkin seeds, jatropha, and palm oil will be used in the initial pilot tests.
Rob Conway, GSMA CEO, is confident: "The extension of mobile networks into rural areas is vital to boost the social and economic welfare of the developing world. Biofuels have the potential to make that happen by giving mobile operators local access to a commercially and environmentally sustainable power supply."
Ericsson's Executive Vice President, Sales and Marketing, Bert Nordberg, is looking to future users: "In order to reach the next billion mobile users, we need to reach lower-spending segments of the population profitably. By using locally-produced biofuels, we could significantly lower the cost of operating mobile base stations in rural areas."
Finally, Karel Pienaar, CTIO of the MTN Group, is keen to stress the advantages that Africa could enjoy: "The early adoption of biofuel-powered mobile networks would place Africa at the forefront of a new wave of innovation that is making mobile communications affordable and accessible across the developing world.
"The GSMA, MTN and Ericsson will draw on the findings of the pilot to help operators across the developing world determine whether they can use biodiesel to power their networks in rural areas. The need for a rethink on fuel is critical as only 25% of Nigeria is connected to the electricity grid. MTN has invested in YellowWatts, its own power system made up of an extensive grid of generators designed to keep the entire MTN network at an optimum level of performance.
* Launched in 1994, the MTN Group is a multinational telecoms group, operating in 21 countries in Africa and the Middle East. As at 30 June 2006, MTN recorded more than 31 million subscribers across its operations, including those of the newly acquired Investcom LLC.
** The GSMA's Development Fund was set up in October 2005 to provide consulting support to innovative pilot projects that use mobile technology to boost social, economic and environmental welfare in developing countries. Working together with mobile operators, the Fund supports easily-replicable and sustainable projects that have the potential to be widely-deployed.