Out of Africa: solar-powered transmitters gain traction

Could mobile-phone transmitters drive the first widespread commercial use of solar-power in Africa?

A number of companies are betting on that -- and whether they succeed will say a lot about the long-term chances that solar-energy can deliver real benefits to large numbers of Africans.

Generally, solar-energy has proved too expensive for African homes and too difficult for African electricity companies -- beset by many operational handicaps -- to master. Mobile-phone companies, which in Africa are prospering, are better positioned to embrace alternative energy sources, and mobile-phone base stations are a good candidate because, in rural Africa, grid power often is unavailable.

A Swedish-Indian company named VNL, VNL, plans to introduce solar-powered base stations aimed at the African marketing, working through various suppliers of telecom equipment.

VNL's big engineering claim: an easy-to-build radio tower that consumes no more electricity than required for an ordinary light bulb.

Ericsson and Alcatel-Lucent have separately installed about 400 solar-powered base stations in African countries including Senegal and Uganda.

VNL's base station will cost $3,500 and require 100 watts to run, about the same as a light bulb. By contrast, the GSM stations most widely used today can cost anywhere from $40,000 to $100,000. The most energy-efficient models require around 600 watts; others may need several thousand watts.

Critical support for these innovations is starting to come from Africa's leading mobile-phone providers, notably Celtel, MTN and Vodaphone, who together control a majority of the sub-Saharan telephone market.

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