Rolling out mobile coverage in rural areas is expensive, particularly in low- and middle-income countries. Most of the key costs operators face in expanding their network – building and maintaining a cell site, powering it and connecting it to the wider network – are all higher in less densely populated, less developed areas. In recent years some operators, including Cellcard Cambodia, have shown that solar power can significantly lower the cost of running cell sites, generating environmental benefits in the process.
Reducing infrastructure costs is a crucial part of increasing coverage to underserved areas. At the end of 2018 over 800 million people were living in areas not covered by mobile broadband networks, with more than 95% of them living in low or middle-income countries. This is primarily driven by economics: the uncovered live in areas that are more expensive to supply, with lower levels of demand. Innovations that reduce the cost of providing coverage, therefore increase the number of locations it is commercially sustainable for a mobile operator to cover.
In common with operators across most developing countries, Cellcard have to contend with a limited and uncertain power supply. At present, 32% of their cell sites are connected to the national electrical grid, mainly concentrated in urban areas such as Phnom Penh. However, this option is not available in many regions: only 49% of the country is currently electrified. In the absence of the electrical grid (the cheapest option), many operators opt for diesel-generators as their power source which beyond its great cost also carries a risk of the fuel being looted. In recent years, Cellcard have begun shifting the burden of powering their sites away from diesel by using hybrid solutions that use a mix of diesel and solar power. Today, 54% of their sites run as hybrid-solar sites, reducing the reliance on expensive and dirty diesel energy.
This approach is yielding significant results. In our recently published case study, we show that:
- This use of solar power is reaping significant commercial and environment benefits: using a GSMA developed model, we estimate they have lowered fuel costs by 32%, saving $7,600 and 38.4 metric tonnes of CO2 per site over a 5 year period.
- We also show that by shifting to fully solar-powered sites, Cellcard could save $51,200 per site over a 10 year period, with CO2 emissions reduced by an additional 82.2 metric tonnes of CO2 over five years.
- Transitioning to fully solar sites would allow Cellcard to cover an additional four percentage points of the population in a commercially sustainable manner. Under this scenario, 89% of the population could be covered in a commercially sustainable way, compared to 85% with the typical existing hybrid configuration.
Understanding Cellcard’s strategy for rural coverage
What are the main challenges you face in bringing mobile broadband coverage to rural areas?
There are 3 main challenges we face with regard to cell sites in rural areas:
- Power: the power supply is an issue in Cambodia: many places lack electricity grid access and the price is quite high (around $0.25/KWh). This has pushed us to find alternative solutions.
- Maintenance: Site maintenance and security is a problematic issue. It is more expensive to get maintenance teams out to these areas and security costs are high given vandalism and theft.
- Logistics: We have real problems getting heavy equipment – such as generators and solar equipment – transported and installed in remote locations.
In addition, many people in Cambodia are using second-hand devices, which are old, unreliable or poor quality. Sadly, our customers can end up thinking there is a problem with our network rather than shortcomings in their device!
Why did you decide to trial solar hybrid?
When we started the project, more than 10 years ago, this solar-hybrid solution was a relatively advanced technology. It was also significantly cheaper to operate than a typical diesel generator, in large part because the climate of Cambodia made PV electricity generation effective even with the slightly older technology we were using. As a result, the lower OPEX more than compensated for the higher CAPEX.
What other steps and initiatives are you taking to improve mobile broadband coverage in rural areas?
Cellcard continues to invest in expanding its network coverage and improving our data services. We are currently interested in building partnerships with companies that can provide alternative power supply that can improve site efficiencies in terms of technology and OPEX.
Additionally, we are running projects on the commercial side that will improve the customer experience and removes barriers to adoption, such as expanding our distribution footprint and regular device bundle promotions with the objective of making LTE access even easier in rural areas.
As a result of trialling this innovation and the learnings from the case study will you be doing anything differently going forward? What are your future plans for solar?”
There are always lessons to learn. As well as building partnerships with third parties that will allow us to fully or partially outsource the power supply, we also want to improve the remote management of existing power systems, and to increase the level of automation in these systems by deploying machine learning technologies.
Are you planning on implementing any other innovations that aim to bring down the cost of mobile broadband connectivity in rural areas?
A noteworthy idea we are thinking of exploring is the deployment of ‘Mini Solar Systems’ to sites that are currently connected to the electricity grid. This will reduce our electricity usage, lower our costs and reduce our carbon footprint.
What support do you think the industry needs from stakeholders to help operators expand rural coverage? (e.g. government, technology providers, internet giants, financial institutions, etc.)?
Governments can help reduce the digital divide by increasing the financial incentives available to cover unprofitable, rural areas.
Technology providers should try to develop more standalone renewable solutions that are resistant to the main risks we face: vandalism, looting and extensive maintenance.
We would also like to see financial institutions develop more long term financing schemes to help eliminate the initial CAPEX burden. This would allow more operators to look at OPEX based alternative power supply systems.
Innovative approaches to rural connectivity – such as the one implemented by Cellcard – should be applauded and are critical to ensuring the benefits of digital inclusion are as widely spread as possible.
Connected Society will be profiling other innovate operator initiatives in this area over the coming year.