Counting the unconnected

For some years now the GSM Association has been driving forward the case for expanding accessibility of telecoms services to the most underdeveloped parts of the world. In order for any industry body to work it requires support from commercial entities, and this is what the GSM Association's Development Fund has been able to initiate.
Counting the unconnected
By Administrator
Thu 01 Mar 2007 02:11 PM

The Global Mobile Association's Development Fund was founded in October 2005 in order to catalyse the uptake of initiatives that use GSM technology for social, economic and environmental development. One of the Fund's first initiatives was the Emerging Market Handset (EMH) programme, which was geared at producing a sub-US$30 handset and reducing the total cost of ownership of GSM-based communications.

Motorola successfully tendered for the EMH programme, and the handset supplier's success has gone on to fund the early growth of the Development Fund. US$0.25 for every entry-level handset sold by Motorola under the programme is donated to the Fund, and as the number of projects and manufacturers come on board under various programmes, the amounts available for investment in socially responsible projects will also grow.

"The Fund is now involved in 10 different projects across Asia and Africa for the examination of alternative power supplies for cell sites, for example" commented Dawn Hartley, GSMA Development Fund Manager. "These pilots are currently taking place in Asia and Africa and we'll be moving into Latin America during the course of 2007," she added.

Last month the GSMA announced that 12 leading mobile operators had selected a multimedia phone developed by LG Electronics as the winning handset to spearhead the GSMA's 3G for All campaign, which aims to make 3G mobile services accessible to a much wider user base.

By agreeing on a common set of requirements, the 12 operators will enable LG to achieve major economies of scale in manufacturing, logistics and marketing. The LG-KU250 handset will be available at a wholesale price about 30% less than the typical entry-level 3G phone.

The LG-KU250 was selected from 19 handsets submitted by eight vendors. The handset will be available to all 3GSM mobile phone operators from 2Q07. The 3G for All campaign is the second programme designed by the GSMA to create economies of scale for handset makers and their component suppliers after the EMH programme.

Meanwhile, the Development Fund's exploration of alternative methods of fuelling GSM sites has led it to help operators pilot a number of substitutes including wind, solar and biofuels. "Total cost of ownership is often prohibitive in rural areas," explained Hartley. "There is no incentive for operators to expand there." Petro/diesel-powered generators are the primary alternative source of power to electricity derived from a national grid, and the move to pilot solar and wind alternatives is a step in the green direction.

"Sometimes one has to wait up to 18 months for power connections from the national utility,' explained Jochen Traut, MTC Namibia's general manager of operations and regulatory affairs. "If you have a base station situated in a remote area, it can cost several thousand Namibian dollars per kilometre of gridline to the right location. With the hybrid solar and wind solution, pay off for the investment can be achieved within six months, easily," Taut added.

MTC Namibia is the country's first and only mobile operator, and launched services in 1995 as a partnership between SwedFund, Telia and the Namibian government. The Swedish investors sold their 49% stake in 2004 and in June 2005 Portugal Telecom acquired a 35% shareholding, while the Namibian government continues to hold the balance. A further 15% is set to be made available to local indigenous partners.

The operator counts approximately 620,000 subscribers in a population of around 2 million. The GSM network extends to 92% of the population but just 65% of the geography of Namibia, as a result of the country's vast landscape. Given the remote nature of some of the less inhabited areas in Namibia, MTC Namibia has already faced problems with regards the theft of solar panels at some of its sites.

At the end of January, the operator reported losses in excess of N$600,000 (US$85,000) with the theft of 51 solar panels in the Caprivi region of the country. The losses were incurred between December 19, 2006 and January 17 alone, and the GSMA Development Fund has a private-public-partnership in place to develop surveillance solutions in 10 countries in order to reduce the incidence of theft.

MTC Nambia's latest alternative power pilot scheme saw it entering an agreement with Motorola and the GSMA to conduct a trial for wind and solar power systems to support its remote GSM cell sites. The trial is expected to run from April-July 2007 and involves the installation of a wind and solar solution at an operational MTC Namibia cell site where the solution will become the electrical power source for the site. The cell site will remain a part of MTC Namibia's current wireless network and continue to carry the same levels of traffic.

This ‘green' solution provides a feasible and efficient alternative to using fuel generators when a main grid connection is not available, or when it will take months or years to connect, or where electricity tariffs are expected to rise sharply in the next few years.

Once installed, it is claimed the cost of power is almost zero, and wind and solar powered cell sites require minimal maintenance unlike a fuel driven generator that generally requires, at a minimum, a monthly visit for refueling and they can also be heavily prone to theft. This translates into a major saving in operating expenditure, a key factor to emerging market network operators.

"We are planning to roll out a further 100 base stations year, mainly in communal farming and rural areas," commented Traut. "The government has placed no obligations upon us with respect to universal services; we just feel it's our national duty to offer coverage to as many Namibians as possible." That and the fact that the country is set to award a second GSM licence at any point, given the original timetable had a December 2006 timeframe.

The Development Fund's Hartley identified that Nigeria and India are two countries in which biofuels are already being tested as alternative sources of energy for cell sites. Last October South Africa's MTN Group, the GSMA and Ericsson teamed up to establish biofuels as an alternative source of power for wireless networks in the developing world. The three organisations set up a pioneering 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.

In a pilot project, supported by expertise and funding from the Development Fund, Ericsson and MTN established a pilot biodiesel-powered base station solution in Lagos and are looking to deploy biodiesel-fuelled base stations in rural regions of south eastern and south western Nigeria. The three organisations set 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 are being used in the initial pilot tests.

Biodiesel has several important advantages over conventional diesel as a power source for base stations. Biodiesel can be produced locally, creating employment in rural areas, while reducing the need for transportation, related logistics and security. Biodiesel 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 operator costs.

The GSMA 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. "MTC Namibia does utilise biofuel, but it is only available in Windhoek," commented Traut. "It needs to be understood that communal settlements can actually start up around base stations, and this can drive revenue in certain areas where initially there was none."

Another project being spearheaded by the Development Fund is in the field of health and disease surveillance, where the organisation has joined forces with the World Health Organisation (WHO) and Voxiva, to integrate mobile phone software into Voxiva's disease surveillance systems. This in turn enables health workers in the field to capture patient data, thus aiding governments in their efforts to take rapid action and supply appropriate medicine.

The first pilot went live in 3Q06 in Rwanda with an HIV/AIDS surveillance tool. A second pilot scheme is planned for Indonesia, tracking bird flu.

The software applications enable health workers to input information about the spread of a disease into their phone or PDA, which then transfers the data via a GPRS connection into a central database. If GPRS is not available, the software can use an SMS data channel to transmit the information. Health workers will also be able to use the software to order medicine, send alerts, download treatment guidelines, training materials and other appropriate and time-crucial information.

The handset software is faster, more efficient and more reliable than the current methods used by health workers to file reports and order medicine. Pilot programmes will provide real-time data to centrally located health officials allowing rapid intervention and providing an accurate picture of the scale and severity of disease outbreak.

The two pilots will create a unique case study for the role of mobile technology in global health surveillance and a reusable asset with new technology capable of being replicated in similar systems.

GSMA Development Fund projects

Shared Access to Voice

Among the first projects supported by the Development Fund have been ‘Shared Access To Voice’ pilots 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.

Shared Access to Data

The Development Fund is seeding ‘Shared Access To Data’ pilots in several countries, such as South Africa, Kenya and Bangladesh. These pilots use enhanced GSM networks 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. In addition, the education community is reaping the benefits of Shared Access to Data, with this model being rolled out across schools.

Schools Connect Programme

As part of its Shared Access to Mobile Data initiative, the Development Fund is also bringing the benefits of mobile communications to the education sector. The Development Fund’s first pilot project in this area involves providing internet connectivity to eight Kenyan secondary schools in partnership with Safaricom and Computers for Schools Kenya.

Disease Surveillance

The work of the GSMA Development Fund goes beyond shared access initiatives, to also bring to bear the benefits of applications on mobiles. The Fund now has a disease surveillance programme underway, starting with two pilot projects that are aimed at demonstrating how mobile technologies can be used to help health authorities and governments track the spread of diseases, such as HIV/AIDS and Avian Flu.

Alternative Energy Programme

The GSMA Development Fund has commenced two projects – a Biofuels Programme, and a Solar and Wind Power Programme – that address operator barriers to entry in their efforts to bridge the digital divide.


GSM Association.

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