For those that travel through mobile black spots or areas of poor coverage, it’s often just a short-term annoyance or inconvenience, but for those that live in rural locations around the world, some one billion of us, poor or no mobile reception can have a serious and detrimental impact on our lives and businesses.

In fact, it’s staggering to think that in 2018, 14 per cent of us still don’t have electricity, telecoms or basic services – with 84 per cent of those people living in rural communities. And with our ever increasingly connected world, the pressure on mobile network operators (MNOs) to improve our communication networks is huge.

Fortunately, there’s a technology poised to solve one of the biggest problems in getting telecom towers into those rural communities, and that’s affordable power. This power will come from fuel cells, not as we know them – but from a fuel cell utilizing breakthrough technology that is 100 per cent clean (no CO₂ emissions), 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 drive significant business for MNOs – not to mention increasing consumer communication to transform their economic development, education, health and quality of life.

How big is the problem and how large is the opportunity?

According to GS Main Intelligence, 2G coverage now reaches more than 90 per cent of the global population in most mature markets and in many emerging ones, while 3G coverage is generally lower at 60-70 per cent.

In a survey of 1465 companies, the British Chambers of Commerce found that 29 per cent reported unreliable mobile internet connections – with the figure rising to 54 per cent in rural areas.

While lost mobile/cellular revenues due to poor or nonexistent rural connectivity is difficult to estimate, very conservatively you could well envisage the loss amounting to hundreds of millions of euros globally.

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

For many cellular/mobile phone carriers, the cost to cable electricity to an off-grid tower is simply too expensive. In some circumstances, companies have installed diesel generators (DGs) 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 the incremental revenues 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.

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

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

More importantly:

·       Converting to more efficient, greener alternative tower power solutions could save the industry $13-14bn annually, even after capital expenses (CAPEX);

·       Adopting green technologies at this scale could reduce carbon emissions by 40 million tonnes and save $100-500m annually.

So, the environmental issue is incredibly important. The business opportunity to make considerable savings, while also increasing customer service and lost revenue, is no less substantial.

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

But what is a fuel cell?

NASA pioneered the use of alkaline fuel cells in the 1960s to provide electricity to power the spacecraft of its Apollo programme.

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, issues with scalability and manufacturability became apparent.

But as with most technology introductions, many types of fuel cells have since been designed, refined and the early issues resolved: principally fuel cell affordability – CAPEX and OPEX.

Today, we see hydrogen-based fuel cells providing backup power in a variety of markets including manufacturing, energy, homeland security and telecom networks.  

 

 

A vision of the future, today!

These fuel cell solutions continue to be extremely well received and adopted, but the world has also been waiting for a mainstream energy solution for a host of primary power applications. And that’s where the Israel-based fuel cell manufacturer GenCell has a unique offering.

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.

Well in 2018, GenCell will launch exactly that. A revolutionary new fuel cell technology for mainstream power. Currently in the final phase of field testing, this new solution brings its total cost of ownership 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.

What does this mean for the telecoms industry? Well, if nothing else, huge opportunity – 53 per cent of the world’s population is still not online, with 22 per cent of that coming from 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 up to 45°C.

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.

With talk of 5G connectivity being the key to unlocking high-speed broadband internet in the future, you can see that solving off-grid power issues will become paramount to all – but especially to energy service companies (ESCOs) that provide power to towers owned by mobile network operators (MNOs) and dedicated tower companies (TowerCos). These businesses are continuously under pressure to decrease energy costs, as it represents 60 per cent of all annual operating expenditure.

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

For more about GenCell and fuel cells for telecoms at Mobile World Congress: anais@incus-media.com