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Going rural, going green 27 Jun, 2008

There has been some recent buzz around the rural opportunity. And about the need for sustainable energy sources.

Everyone wants to get connected. Mobile operators want to reach new growth markets. And oil is, after all, going extinct.

On the 24th of June, The Economic Times wrote that:

“The government is considering a proposal by which companies using solar or biogas power for running the rural telecom infrastructure would be subsidised.”

India’s Department of Telecom (DoT) has, according to Economic Times, around Rs 15,000 crore of unutilised money under the USOF (Universal Services Obligation Fund) scheme and is finding ways to spend it.

Unstrung Insider recently released the report “Mobile Networks Go Green: The Lean Base Station” which examines the opportunities for using sustainable energy sources to power radio sites in remote areas.

John Blau, research analyst at Unstrung, recently underlined the importance of new energy sources:

The growth in mobile networks over the next few years will come from emerging markets. Of the more than 1.5 billion new subscribers from emerging markets by 2015, nearly two thirds live in remote parts of the world, where access to electric grids isn’t guaranteed.”

The most common way to reach areas where there’s no power grid is to deploy conventional base stations with diesel generators. And even in emerging market cities, the power grid is often so unreliable that diesel generators have to run several hours every day to keep the mobile network running.

Unstrung estimates that around 1 million new base stations will be needed to extend connectivity to rural areas in emerging markets.

The good news is spelled WorldGSM™ – VNL’s complete GSM system that helps mobile operators reach rural markets profitably.

We also have a new white paper in the works about the mobile energy crisis. It’s coming soon, and will explain mobile operator’s power woes further.

It will also provide ideas for how the mobile industry can move forward sustainably. Which is, actually, the only way forward.

Smoke signals 18 Jun, 2008

Besides providing mobile coverage, traditional base stations also do a good job of providing noise and air pollution.

The Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) recently inspected a large number of Delhi’s 6,000+ base station sites. Times Of India reported on their findings today:

The committee found out that several diesel generator sets installed at these towers did not have the compulsory acoustic enclosures to curb noise pollution. Even the stack height of the DG sets was not high enough, and this resulted in increased air pollution.”

Based on the results of their inspection, DPCC have sent notices ot the service providers and have given them a deadline of three weeks to straighten things out.

Aside from the noise and air pollution, many urban base stations are configured for maximum power output rather than power efficiency. The main reason for this being the enormous uptake in mobile services, with India adding more than 2 million new subscribers every week.

This means that these base stations are contributing to very high amounts of radio frequency radiation. Even though researchers have yet to agree on whether radio frequencies of these strengths are harmful or not, it still seems like the most reasonable way forward would be to re-invent technology and network architecture to deploy new networks that are based on current power contraints, usage requirements and number of subscribers.

It is simply a matter of available technology, time and cost.

For rural areas, the scenario is quite different. These are low-density networks (as in few subscribers per square kilometre) where people may only be willing to pay $3, or less, every month for basic phone services. This creates a whole new set of requirements for mobile network infrastructure. Technology that provides connectivity to these areas needs to be low power, low cost and low maintenance.

Fortunately for the world’s billions of unconnected, there’s now WorldGSM™ from VNL which helps mobile operators reach rural areas profitably.

Getting the next billion mobile users connected is a challenge with large social and environmental dividends. And it’s a crucial effort to advance both economic and social development. Not to mention that mobile operators need to find new growth markets. The rural opportunity is where the future is.

It’s quite different from the urban challenge of providing coverage to a rapidly expanding user base that demands both higher data speeds and lower costs.

Looking ahead a couple of years, networks will most likely converge. The shared utopian vision for many mobile operators and equipment vendors is “the ubiquitous network”. Where data speeds are amazing, and where all devices can connect seamlessly.

Meanwhile, let’s reduce urban emissions and connect all the people who have yet to make a phonecall.

A weapon against poverty 13 Jun, 2008

Many people in rural communities don’t have enough money saved to start a regular bank account. And even if they had an account, getting to the bank office could take days.

So it’s no surprise that smart new mobile banking services have taken off like wildfire. If you have a phone, you can save money and transfer your savings just like if you had a regular account. And it’s all in your pocket (providing that you have coverage - something which WorldGSM™ aims to solve).

Tom Standage recently summarized the value of mobile banking in the Economist:

Lack of access to financial services increases the cost of borrowing and hampers entrepreneurship. Carrying large amounts of cash around, or storing it under the bed, is insecure. And sending remittances [...] is subject to high transaction costs. Mobile banking and payment schemes can address all of these problems.”

The mobile banking revolution started in 2001, and was spearheaded by Smart Communications in the Philippines. Since then, the ideas have spread all over the world.

Aside from the more established mobile banking players, there are also grassroots initiatives based on a creative take on prepaid airtime, as mentioned in the New York Times article “Can the Cellphone Help End Global Poverty?“:

Ugandans are using prepaid airtime as a way of transferring money from place to place, something that’s especially important to those who do not use banks. Someone working in Kampala, for instance, who wishes to send the equivalent of $5 back to his mother in a village will buy a $5 prepaid airtime card, but rather than entering the code into his own phone, he will call the village phone operator (“phone ladies” often run their businesses from small kiosks) and read the code to her. She then uses the airtime for her phone and completes the transaction by giving the man’s mother the money, minus a small commission.”

We’ve researched and compiled a list of the most popular mobile banking (M-banking) services.

Most of these are based around the most basic need: sending and receiving money. But some are also connected with a standard debit card that can be used for retail purchases.

SMART COMMUNICATIONS

Smart Communications – one of the major Philippine mobile operators – offers two mobile banking services: Smart Money and Smart Padala.

Smart Money is one of the world’s first M-Banking services. It enables Smart subscribers to manage their money from their mobile phones. Person to person fund transfers only requires a mobile phone, and an additional debit card is used for ATM withdrawals and retail purchases.

Smart Padala is an international cash remittance service linked to the mobile phone.

Learn more at smart.com.ph »

GLOBE GCASH

Globe GCash, from Globe Telecom in the Philippines was launched in October 2004.

It gives subscribers access to “a cashless and cardless method of facilitating money remittance, donations, loan settlement, disbursement of salaries or commissions, and payment of bills, products and services, with just a text message”.

Apart from a wide range of personal services, GCash also offers partnerships for retailers and rural banks.

M-PESA

M-Pesa, developed by Vodafone and offered through Safaricom in Kenya, is a simple mobile money-transfer service that has become wildly popular since its launch in 2007.

The Guardian wrote about M-Pesa a year ago, and described how simple it is to use:

There is no need for a new handset or SIM card. To send money you hand over the cash to a registered agent - typically a retailer - who credits your virtual account.

You then send between 100 shillings (74p) and 35,000 shillings (£259) via text message to the desired recipient - even someone on a different mobile network - who cashes it at an agent by entering a secret code and showing ID.

A commission of up to 170 shillings (£1.25) is paid by the recipient but it compares favourably with fees levied by the major banks, whose services are too expensive for most of the population.

You can find more info about M-Pesa at Safaricom.com »

WIZZIT

South African banking service Wizzit has been in operation since 2005 and offers person-to-person payments, airtime top up, electricity vouchers and payment of accounts.

Aside from the regular mobile banking services, Wizzit also offers the iWizz internet banking service.

Learn more about Wizzit at wizzit.com »

MTN BANKING

MTN Banking is a South African joint venture between the mobile operator MTN and Standard Bank.

Very similar to Wizzit (mentioned above), the MTN MobileMoney Account includes person-to-person payments, make payments to and receive payments from any bank account in South Africa, and make account payments to various municipalities and other service providers.

More info at mtnbanking.co.za »

VNL and M-banking

WorldGSM™ from VNL helps mobile operators reach rural markets profitably.

Billions of people still don’t have access to a mobile phone. Simply because mobile coverage hasn’t reached them yet. When it does, mobile banking becomes possible.

Want to learn more?

Here are some good places to start:

And if you have something to say – join the discussion!