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3GSM Asia: GSMA goes nuts for biofuels

The GSM Association (GSMA) Development Fund has teamed with Ericsson and MTN to establish biofuels as an alternative source of power for mobile networks in the developing world.

For the past three months the trio have been working on a 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 the electricity grid. A pilot generator and connected base station is already up and running at Ericsson’s HQ in Stockholm and a pilot processor and generator are being installed in Lagos to run technical tests.

Biodiesel has several advantages over conventional diesel as a power source for base stations; it can be produced locally, creating employment in rural areas, and it also has a much lower impact on the environment than conventional diesel. The cleaner burning fuel results in fewer site visits and extends the life of the base station generator, reducing operators’ costs.

The three companies have assessed the economic, environmental and social business cases behind the switch, and are now in the process of setting up 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.

“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,” said Karel Pienaar, CTIO of the MTN Group.

The pilot project is the first time that biofuel has been used as a power source for radio base stations. The GSMA and Ericsson will draw on the findings of the pilot to help operators across the developing world determine whether they can use biofuel to power their networks in rural areas.

The milestone comes at the end of the Fund’s first year of operation, which has already seen the successful launch of eleven pilot projects in seven countries. Established in October 2005, the Fund aims to build on the social, economic and environmental benefits already generated from the success of mobile technology by identifying and rolling out projects in regions that previously had little or no access to telecommunications.

Built on the success of the GSMA’s Emerging Market Handset (EMH) initiative, initial projects focused on the concept of “shared access” to voice and data services, aimed at providing mobile communications to all whilst fostering a business practice that is both socially responsible and profitable for every party.

Working with implementation partner Accenture Development Partnerships, Shared Access to Voice pilots have been launched in Algeria, India, Kenya and Nigeria. These projects typically involve entrepreneurs using a handset as a mobile payphone and offering the service for a small fee. Initial results have demonstrated that the concept is successful, viable and workable.

For example, eight Shared Access to Voice pilot sites were established in eight weeks in Algeria with local operator Orascom, and 100 pilot sites have been launched in Kenya with Safaricom. Each shared voice handset in the pilot projects is being used by an average of thirty customers. These pilots are now evolving into wider-scale rollouts.

Meanwhile the Fund has seeded Shared Access to Data pilots in several countries, such as South Africa, Kenya and Bangladesh. These pilots use enhanced GSM networks (utilising EDGE technology) to bring Internet access to computers stationed in fixed booths run by entrepreneurs, who charge a fee to local people wishing to use such services. Headline figures from the data pilots include the launch of sixteen “Community Information Centres” in Bangladesh with GrameenPhone, and eight “Data Centres” in South African townships with MTN (including the first HSDPA launch for the Development Fund).

In addition, the education community is reaping the benefits of Shared Access to Data, with this model being rolled out in Kenyan schools with the support of Safaricom and Computers for Schools Kenya.

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