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Overcoming Off-grid Power Problems for Rural Connectivity

By Rami Reshef

Mobile network operators find advantages in using the latest fuel cell technology to power cell sites to connect rural communities, improve people’s lives and increase telecom profits.

A GenCell fuel cell suspended from a mechanical arm on a delivery truck.

For those who travel through mobile black spots or areas of poor coverage, wireless service interruptions often are only short-term annoyances or inconvenience. But for those who live in rural locations around the world — some 1 billion people — poor or no mobile reception can have a serious and detrimental effect on their lives and businesses.

It is staggering to think that in 2018, 14 percent of the world’s population had no electricity, telecommunications or basic services. Of these people, 84 percent live in rural communities. In an increasingly connected world, the pressure on mobile network operators (MNOs) to improve communications networks is huge.

A new, affordable fuel cell technology promises to solve the big problem of supplying power to telecommunications towers in rural communities lacking electricity supplied by utilities. The new fuel cells use breakthrough technology that is 100 percent clean (no CO2emissions), is cost effective and only needs refueling and maintenance once a year.

Not only will it save energy service companies (ESCOs) money, but it will also allow MNOs to attract more business while increasing communication among and with consumers to transform their economic development, education, health and quality of life.

According to GSMA Intelligence, 2G digital cellular communications coverage reaches more than 90 percent of the global population in most mature markets and in many emerging ones. Compared with 2G, the 3G wireless communications coverage with faster data transfer rates reaches 60 to 70 percent of the global population. GSMA Intelligence is a source of mobile operator data, analysis and forecasts. It is run by GSMA, a membership organization representing mobile operators worldwide.

GSMA Intelligence published global market figures in its 2014 report, “Mobile Access — The Last Mile.”

Unreliable Connections

In a survey of 1,465 companies in its 2017 “Digital Economy Survey,” the British Chambers of Commerce found that 29 percent reported unreliable mobile internet connections — with the figure rising to 54 percent in rural areas.
Although the potential cellular service revenue lost because of poor or nonexistent rural connectivity is difficult to estimate, a conservative estimate puts it at hundreds of millions of dollars globally.

So, if the business opportunity is seemingly strong, what are the barriers to rural connectivity? First, remote areas tend to be less populated and less affluent. In addition, planning laws in many countries restrict the erection of monopoles or limit the maximum height of mobile phone towers. However, one of the largest problems in rural locations is the lack of an electrical grid to cost-effectively power mobile phone towers.

Cost of Grid Electricity

For many cellular carriers, the cost to extend utility electricity to an off-grid tower is simply too expensive. In some circumstances, companies have installed diesel generators to provide the necessary power. However, they need regular maintenance to ensure their effectiveness, which means that two generators must be installed so one is operational while the other one is offline for maintenance. Managing these diesel generators requires time-consuming and expensive monthly maintenance visits to each tower. For larger businesses, this could represent many hundreds or thousands of towers. What’s more, there is also a growing trend for diesel generators to be stolen, causing significant disruption and additional cost.

The combination of vast and difficult-to-service areas, with the lack of a grid or a reliable power alternative, has made the rollout of rural networks essentially unaffordable. Furthermore, the cost to establish rural towers is not covered by incremental revenue from a low-volume, rural customer base. When you also consider that many businesses are now also seeking alternatives to diesel to reduce their carbon footprint, you can see that rural networks are a complex challenge for the industry.

Significant Numbers

GSMA estimates that by 2020, the global telecom industry will have deployed approximately 390,000 off-grid telecom towers, with 790,000 towers in bad-grid locations — so the numbers are significant.

The report also suggests that if these towers continue to use diesel, as is the case for more than 90 percent of them, diesel consumption for telecom towers will increase by 13 to 15 percent from today’s levels to over 150 million barrels per year. The resulting annual cost of diesel will be over $19 billion in 2020, or $5 per mobile-phone user per year. In addition, about 45 million tons of CO₂ per year will be released, which is an increase of more than 5 million tons annually.

More importantly:

·     Converting to more efficient, greener alternative tower power solutions could save the industry $13 billion to $14 billion annually, even after capital expenses.
·     Adopting green technologies at this scale could reduce carbon emissions by 40 million tons and save $100 million to $500 million annually.

So, the environmental factor is incredibly important. The business opportunity to achieve considerable savings while increasing customer service and tapping otherwise lost revenue is no less substantial.

One of the greener power alternatives is the modern fuel cell. And according to many, it is just around the corner, ready to revolutionize the telecommunications market.

What Is a Fuel Cell?

NASA pioneered the use of alkaline fuel cells in the 1960s to provide the electricity to power spacecraft of its Apollo program.
In the early days of fuel cell development, the promise of the technology was huge, and many businesses were attracted to its distinct benefits. However, as scientists tried to commercialize the technology, problems with scalability and manufacturability became apparent.

But, as with most technology introductions, many types of fuel cells have since been designed and refined, and the early problems have been resolved – principally fuel cell affordability as reflected in capital expenses and operating expenses.
Today, hydrogen-based fuel cells provide backup power in a variety of markets including manufacturing, energy, homeland security and telecom networks.

Primary Power Fuel Cells

These fuel cell solutions continue to be well received and are being adopted, but the world has also been waiting for a mainstream energy solution for a host of primary power applications.

Imagine being able to power off-grid telecom towers with a solution that doesn’t require diesel, and one that is cheaper, cleaner, more secure, ultra-reliable, and only needs maintaining and fueling once a year.

In 2018, GenCell introduced a new fuel cell technology for mainstream power. Currently in the final phase of field testing, this new solution brings the total cost of ownership for fuel cell power to a price point that takes it from a backup power solution to mainstream power for off-grid applications — with all the added benefits that fuel cells deliver.

Huge Opportunity

What does this mean for the telecom industry? Well, if nothing else, huge opportunity: 53 percent of the world’s population is still not online, with 22 percent of that figure attributed to developed countries.

In remote areas with extreme weather, such as in Brazil with its high humidity or Canada with its extreme cold, telecom providers often struggle to provide communities with a reliable and continuous telecom network. Fuel cells could bridge that gap and revolutionize telecom tower reliability, offering uninterrupted service in temperatures from −40°C to +45°C (−40°F to +113°F).

In some cases, this is not a nice-to-have, but a must-have technology, where, for instance, being able to make a call to the emergency services can save lives. In other situations, reliable access to the internet makes online banking and other services possible, significantly improving lives, businesses and economic prosperity.

5G Connectivity

With talk of 5G connectivity being the key to providing high-speed broadband internet service in the future, you can see that solving off-grid power issues will become paramount to all — but especially to energy service companies that provide power to towers owned by mobile network operators and dedicated tower companies. These businesses are continuously under pressure to decrease energy costs and power represents as much as 60 percent of annual operating expenses.

Industry Milestone

In a world that increasingly relies on immediacy and connectivity for social requirements and business opportunities, solving the off-grid power problem will be an important industry milestone. Fuel cells can provide the 100 percent sustainable, reliable and cost-effective power needed to get rural areas online and talking.

Rami Reshef is CEO of GenCell. For more information, visit www.gencellenergy.com.

This article originally ran in the May issue of AGL Magazine.


Power, Backhaul Keys to Hurricane Recovery — T-Mobile’s Coltrain

By J. Sharpe Smith

Power and Backhaul can be the two biggest challenges to restoring wireless networks, Chris Coltrain, T-Mobile manager, engineering operations, told the audience during the AGL Local Summit in Fort Worth last week.

Coltrain had just come back from three weeks living on a barge in Puerto Rico, working on bringing the carrier’s network back online when he spoke on the panel, “The Carriers Talk Back: How Can You Better Serve Them?”

He served on the carrier’s strike team going into Houston for Hurricane Harvey and deploying into Miami for Hurricane Irma, as well as spending three weeks in Puerto Rico for Hurricane Maria. Coltrain was among dozens of T-Mobile experts on the island, whose specialty is to fix communications systems after natural disasters. Additionally, 100 members of T-Mobile’s Emergency Volunteer Team were deployed to help with recovery efforts.

“The storms in the season this year are like nothing I have ever seen before. Puerto Rico’s hurricane was like a 500-mile wide tornado that wiped the island clean.” Chris Coltrain, T-Mobile.

Carriers had problems keeping their towers up and running after Harvey because the flooding forced them to use boats to get fuel to the generators.

“Hurricane Harvey was two storms in one. You had the wind event that damaged some aerials and some towers, and then you had the flooding that took place in Houston,” Coltrain said. “We could get sites on the air. We had backhaul, but we couldn’t readily get fuel to them.”

The major problem experienced after Irma was a large power outage but the electric companies got the lights back on fairly quickly, he said.

Upon landing in Puerto Rico, Coltrain was presented with a situation with massive power outages, which wasn’t going to go away as quickly. Exacerbating the problem, there was a minimal number of generators and a severe shortage of diesel fuel.

“Puerto Rico brought in new challenges. Everything we needed was either a half-million-dollar plane ride or 14 days away,” he said.

Since then 130 portable generators have been deployed on the island fueled by thousands of gallons of fuel that have been delivered to the island. A total of 12 freight aircraft brought supplies and personnel to the island. Additionally, multiple barges brought trucks, cells on wheels (COWs), cells on light trucks (CoLTS), RVs and diesel trucks.

Another big problem was backhaul. T-Mobile and the other carriers all depended on an aerial fiber provider, which lost 90 percent of its lines.

“Every carrier has to rebuild their AAV [alternative access vendor] tower backhaul networks,” Coltrain said. “We are using any type of technology we can find, from RADWIN hops to licensed microwave hops to Gilat and VSAT, which is extremely limited. The network in Puerto Rico is going to be limited to voice and text for some time.”

So far, T-Mobile engineers have restored service at more than 220 sites including San Juan, Guaynabo, Toa Baja, Bayamón, Ponce, Carolina, Ceiba, San Germán and Rio Grande.

As of Oct. 20, AT&T said it had deployed 17 mobile cell sites, five emergency communications portables and nearly 600 generators. Further, as of Oct. 26, coverage had been restored to 65 percent of the population, and 13 million calls and 6.5 million texts a day week were being processed on the AT&T network.

By Oct. 11, Vanu had three satellite-based cell sites up and running for AT&T in Puerto Rico with 30 soon to be set up.

“All the carriers have been good at getting coverage where we need to get coverage, but there were people that are still out of touch,” Coltrain said.

The ordeal in Puerto Rico is far from over. It is expected to take 18 months to restore electricity to the entire island, because of the 1950’s technology that is in use there. Until the power comes back, 45,000 to 50,000 gallons of diesel will be burned a week to keep the towers running. With diesel costing up to $5 a gallon, the price of communications will be high.

Coltrain advised the tower companies at the conference that they should provide generators at every site to be used on a shared basis by the carriers.

“You can provide us with shared generators,” he said. “During a disaster, you have to have power and you have to have backhaul.”

Beyond getting the networks back online, carriers are helping the people on the island financially.

T-Mobile has pledged $10,000 to Team Rubicon, a veteran-run disaster relief organization, for hurricane recovery efforts, for every Major League Baseball postseason home run, and an additional $1 every time consumers tweet using #HR4HR. Beginning with Game 1 of the World Series, T-Mobile upped its pledge $20,000 for every home run. Coincidently, the teams had slugged a World Series record 24 out of the park for a $480,000 donation.

Verizon increased its support for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, as well, from $1 million up to $5 Million, as the magnitude of recovery and relief efforts became clear, according to Verizon Chairman and CEO Lowell McAdam.

J. Sharpe Smith is a Senior Editor for AGL eDigest. He joined AGL in 2007 as contributing editor to the magazine and as editor of eDigest email newsletter. He has 27 years of experience writing about industrial communications, paging, cellular, small cells, DAS and towers. Previously, he worked for the Enterprise Wireless Alliance as editor of the Enterprise Wireless Magazine. Before that, he edited the Wireless Journal for CTIA and he began his wireless journalism career with Phillips Publishing, now Access Intelligence.