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COMMUNICATIONS AFRICA: “Rural Communications Finds Its Place in the Sun ” 27 May, 2009

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Solar power could transform rural lives and, with the right business model, it could also pay for itself quickly and make money for operators; Anil Raj, Board Member of telecom equipment maker VNL, tells us why this idea is eminently feasible.

“THE DIESEL GENERATOR is normally a very reliable piece of equipment which will give you many years of service – if it is operated and maintained with an attitude of religious devotion. You have to change the air filter regularly. You have to be careful about the quality of the fuel that you use. You have to change your fuel filters regularly. Every 100 hours you have to basically disassemble your fuel injection pump. If you do this you will be rewarded with long financial life and reliable duty. Now of course this doesn’t happen, and what you have is equipment which is sub-optimal, which consumes a lot of power and which will be a heap of rusting scrap very soon at a huge cost to the operator.”

So if Anil Raj, Board Member of telecom equipment maker VNL, is right, and you’re looking for a base station to connect your village to a mobile network, powering it with diesel may be economically unfeasible. But for rural dwellers, in areas where supply from the grid is unreliable at best, what alternative is there?

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PRESS RELEASE: VNL Solar-Powered GSM Base Station Takes Second Place at 2009 CTIA Emerging Technology Awards 17 Apr, 2009

2009 CTIA Award

April 14 2009 – VNL’s solar-powered GSM system recently took second place in the “Green Network Hardware and Infrastructure category” at the CTIA’s E-Tech awards (www.ctiawireless.com/media).

VNL’s WorldGSM™ is the first solar-powered GSM system specifically designed to enable mobile operators in the developing world to build networks in remote rural areas where ARPUs are low – and still make a profit.

Created in 2006, the CTIA E-Tech Awards programme is designed to give industry recognition and exposure to the best wireless products and services. This year, the awards attracted almost 300 entries which were reviewed by a panel of recognised members of the media, industry analysts and executives. Products are judged on innovation, functionality, technological importance, implementation and overall “wow” factor.

Vikas Tyagi accepted this award on VNL\'s behalf. He is fifth from the left.
Vikas Tyagi accepted this award on VNL’s behalf. He is fifth from the left.

The award ceremony took place on April 2nd during the CTIA show in Las Vegas. First place went to Nokia Siemens Networks’ low energy, multi-technology Flexi Multiradio Base Station, and third place to Alcatel-Lucent’s Sustainable Power Solution, a service that includes lifecycle assessment and equipment recycling. They all represent an integral part of the emerging sustainable telecom ecosystem and are complementary.

Anil Raj, VNL Board Member, said:

“Recognition from our industry peers is always very welcome. We know that VNL is the only vendor focused on enabling operators to build a sustainable business case for low ARPU customers. It’s great that our efforts have been recognised by the CTIA.”

For years, operators and GSM equipment vendors have struggled with the same problem: traditional GSM equipment is not designed for the unique challenges posed by remote rural areas. It costs too much, is too expensive to run, uses too much power and is too difficult to deploy (especially in areas with no electricity, poor roads and a lack of trained engineers).

VNL has spent the last five years re-engineering GSM to overcome these challenges. The highlights of VNL’s WorldGSM system:

  • Solar Powered – needs only 50 – 120W per base station compared to the 3000W required for traditional GSM. Each site can be powered by a 2-8m² solar panel, rather than the 200 m² panel required to power a traditional GSM base station.
  • Zero Opex – made possible by major reductions in power consumption; allowing for the use of solar power as the single energy source. No diesel generators are required.
  • Low Capex – priced at less than a quarter of traditional GSM base stations so profitable at very low densities and ARPU levels
  • Rural-Optimized and Easy to Transport – compact and rugged; can even be transported on bullock carts.
  • Self-Deploying and Near-Zero Maintenance – easily installed and maintained by local workers.

WorldGSM also opens up a new microtelecom business model – involving microfinance – where operators can partner with local entrepreneurs to accelerate deployment and reduce costs still further.

Anil Raj, VNL Board Member, says:

“The industry recognises that VNL has finally provided operators with a truly viable way to build profitable networks to serve rural communities with low ARPUs”.

Last November WorldGSM won the “best technology foresight” category at the World Communications Awards.

ABOUT VNL

VNL (www.vnl.in) is substantially changing the way operators will build networks in the future. As the innovator of zero opex networks and the pioneer of microtelecom, their simple to install solar powered cellular base stations help mobile operators maximize their profit margins by reaching rural markets profitably. The management team includes telecom industry veterans with vast experience in bringing products and services to entirely new markets. Its Chairman and founder, Rajiv Mehrotra, started the Shyam Group of companies and established some of the earliest GSM, CDMA and fixed networks in India serving millions of people today.

For more information, visit the company website at www.vnl.in or contact VNL’s PR representative Bridget Fishleigh (+44 7946 342 903, bridget@nomadcomms.com or Skype: bridgetfishleigh).

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PRESS RELEASE: VNL’s Solar Powered GSM Base Station Short-Listed at 2009 CTIA Emerging Technology Awards 25 Mar, 2009

March 25 2009 – VNL’s solar powered GSM system is one of just four entries short-listed in the “Green Network Hardware and Infrastructure category” category at the CTIA’s E-Tech awards.

VNL’s WorldGSM is the first solar powered GSM system specifically designed to enable mobile operators in the developing world to build networks in remote rural areas where ARPUs are low – and still make a profit.

Created in 2006, The CTIA E-Tech Awards programme is designed to give industry recognition and exposure to the best wireless products and services.

This year the awards attracted almost 300 entries which were reviewed by a panel of recognised members of the media, industry analysts and executives. Products are judged on innovation, functionality, technological importance, implementation and overall “wow” factor. Alcatel-Lucent, Motorola, Cisco, Qualcomm, NSN, Huawei and Samsung all have products short-listed in various categories. The solar powered chargers of Suntrica, a partner of VNL, has also been short-listed in the Green Network Hardware and Infrastructure category of the awards.

Winners will be announced and awarded at the show on April 2 (http://ctiait.ctia.org/eTechw2009public).

For years, operators and GSM equipment vendors have struggled with the same problem: traditional GSM equipment is not designed for the unique challenges posed by remote rural areas. It costs too much, is too expensive to run, uses too much power and is too difficult to deploy (especially in areas with no electricity, poor roads and a lack of trained engineers).

VNL has spent the last five years re-engineering GSM to overcome these challenges. The highlights of VNL’s WorldGSM system:

  • Zero opex – made possible by major reductions in power consumption; allowing for the use of solar power as the single energy source. No diesel generators are required.
  • Low capex – priced at less than a quarter of traditional GSM base stations so profitable at very low densities and ARPU levels
  • Rural-optimized and easy to transport – compact and rugged; can even be transported on bullock carts.
  • Self-deploying and near-zero maintenance – easily installed and maintained by local workers.
  • Solar powered – needs only 50 – 120W per base station compared to the 3000W required for traditional GSM. Each site can be powered by a 2-8m² solar panel, rather than the 200 m² panel required to power a traditional GSM base station.

WorldGSM also opens up a new microtelecom business model – involving microfinance – where operators can partner with local entrepreneurs to accelerate deployment and reduce costs still further.

Anil Raj, VNL Board Member, says:

“The industry recognises that VNL has finally provided operators with a truly viable way to build profitable networks to serve rural communities with low ARPUs”.

Last November WorldGSM won the “best technology foresight” category at the World Communications Awards.

For more information, visit the company website at www.vnl.in or contact VNL’s PR representative Bridget Fishleigh (+44 7946 342 903, bridget@nomadcomms.com or Skype: bridgetfishleigh).

ABOUT VNL

VNL (www.vnl.in) – the innovator of zero opex networks and pioneer of microtelecom – helps mobile operators reach rural markets profitably. The management team includes telecom industry veterans with vast experience in bringing products and services to entirely new markets. Its Chairman and founder, Rajiv Mehrotra, started the Shyam Group of companies and established some of the earliest GSM, CDMA and fixed networks in India serving millions of people today.

Impact of Mobile Telephony on Rural Marketing 25 Feb, 2009

India’s overall economic growth has dramatically increased rural India’s purchasing power. Marketers are now looking at smart ways to reach the rural market. Some Indian companies have modified their offerings specifically for the needs of rural markets.

Hindustan Lever Limited (HLL) is a good example with successful rural marketing projects like ‘Project Shakti’ and ‘Operation Bharat’. The main emhasis of HLL’s strategy has been to focus on penetrating the market down the line and focusing on price point. Hindustan Lever relies heavily on its own company-organised media. These are promotional events organised by stockists.

Coca Cola India entered the rural market by introducing bottles priced at Rs. 5. The campaign was backed with ads featuring well-known actor Aamir Khan. During the Aamir Khan ad-campaign, they also used local language in advertising. A combination of TV, cinema and radio was used to increase the reach to rural consumers. Coca Cola have also used banners and posters, and tapped many local forms of entertainment. Because of the common lack of electricity and refrigerators in rural areas, Coca Cola provides low-cost ice boxes — a tin box for new outlets and thermocool box for seasonal outlets.

A thorough understanding of the rural consumer is a crucial key to rural marketing success. Rural marketeers also need to take the large diversity of customs and language into account. Ideas and techniques used in urban areas just won’t work for rural consumers.

Mobile telephony can better enable rural marketing in the following ways:

  1. Better understanding of the rural consumer – Marketers need to understand the psyche of the rural consumers and then act accordingly. Traditional broadcast media (television, radio etc.) is not interactive, which means you can’t get any inputs from the consumers. Mobile media can change this and help marketers in better understanding of the rural consumer. With the advent of rural telephony, market research companies can conduct telephonic surveys and interact directly with rural consumers.
  2. More effective marketing communication – This includes messages and related media used to communicate with the market. Television has made a great impact and a large audience has been exposed to this medium. But since TV programmes are also produced for the urban population, marketers have to make a choice between rural and urban. With the advent of mobile telephony in rural markets, marketers can use this channel to provide customized communication directly to their target markets. One example solution is to send voice-SMS in the regional language.

Clearly there are many advantages to marketers if the mobile telephone density increases in rural India. With VNL’s solar powered GSM system – WorldGSM™ – mobile operators can finally provide rural mobile telephony services to India’s villages. This will in turn will enable better rural marketing specifically designed for rural consumers.

Further reading:

VNL Wins Best Technology Foresight Award 27 Nov, 2008

Last night, VNL won the prestigious “Best Technology Foresight” award at the yearly WCA awards in London.

This was the most hotly contested category of the entire evening with 15 companies shortlisted.

The World Communication Awards (WCA) is recognised as the most trusted global industry event of its kind in the communications industry.

The judges described VNL’s WorldGSM system as “a big breakthrough” and they “applauded the use of a green technology that brought mobility to rural areas”.

These were the shortlisted companies for “Best Technology Foresight”:

  • Aepona (Telecom Web Services Platform)
  • AT&T (Business Direct)
  • Bharti Telesoft (Monet Hub)
  • Ceragon Networks (FibeAir IP-MAX2)
  • dotMobi (DeviceAtlas)
  • NXP (mobilkom NFC services)
  • NextWave Wireless (TDtv)
  • Orange Business Services (Near Field Communications)
  • Orga Systems GmbH (LOMS Local Mobile Services)
  • Qualcomm (Gobi Global Mobile Internet)
  • Spinvox (Spinvox VMCS)
  • Telcordia (Real Time Charging)
  • Telstra (Network Transformation)
  • VNL (WorldGSM solar powered base station)
  • Wayfinder (Wayfinder Access)

This is yet another validation of the importance of the task VNL has undertaken – to help mobile operators profitably and sustainably bring mobile telephony to rural areas.

See the full list of WCA award winners at totaltele.com »

Read Ovum’s commentary – “Looking back on technology foresight” »

Making Entrepreneurship a Rural Affair 18 Nov, 2008

With entrepreneurship penetrating every sector of the Indian market, rural India is not far behind.

In fact, the government, NGOs and the private sector unanimously agree that rural entrepreneurship = rural development. For the government and the NGOs, this is possibly the best way to uplift the rural community, and for the corporates, it provides value addition by giving them the opportunity to reach into remote areas.

There are a number of platforms in the urban areas that have a positive impact on the entrepreneurial environment – there are investors who are looking out for that one great idea that deserves their money; and there are networking events, where various entrepreneurs come together to understand various business models, and to discuss their own. A quick glance at the rural market, in comparison, shows that though entrepreneurship is headed in the right direction, there is still a long way to go.

The most critical factor in this context is the availability of viable and sustainable investment opportunities, and the lack of communication facilities in remote areas. The most common businesses that are initiated are those that are started by external groups, and entail textile production, agri-tourism, small retail businesses, craftsmanship etc. However, even though the NGOs and government bodies have collaborated to establish self-help groups to alleviate rural poverty, the lack of confidence amongst most of the rural population has proved to be a deterrent to the idea of innovative rural entrepreneurship.

Some of the main issues that the rural community faces while setting up their unique businesses include lack of knowledge about profit yielding industries, and of access to capital. Limited knowledge and experience about the resources available to build their business has also stopped the already apprehensive rural community to embrace the spirit of entrepreneurship.

I’d like to give a couple of examples of successful rural entrepreneurship – one that is led by Unilever, and the other which is a self-driven initiative by an individual in Tamil Nadu. Unilever connects self-help groups with business opportunities through Project Shakti. It specifically gives the women groups a chance to become small-scale sellers of its products, wherein each entrepreneur buys a small stock of items that are then sold direct to consumers in their homes. In association with the local district authorities, Unilever also provides free training on the basics of business management and sales. Piloted in 2002, Project Shakti saw immense popularity with more than 45,000 entrepreneurs covering 3 million homes in 100,000 villages in 15 states in India.

The other interesting instance is about a rural entrepreneur: T. Mariappan, a banana grower in a village close to Tiruchi, who designed a banana dehydrator by trial and error method, to produce a type of sweet from the fruit. Impressed by what Mr. Mariappan had to offer, the Indian Overseas Bank has sanctioned Rs. 11 lakh for his project. Currently marketing the produce in 400-kg packs and in sachets, the rural entrepreneur’s future plan is to use a solar energy-operated dehydrator for large-scale production.

According to a report by Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) on entrepreneurship;

“From the perspective of the process of entrepreneurship, whether the location is urban, semi-rural or rural, is not important in itself. For example, the needs of a would be entrepreneur or an existing small business do not differ much from those in an urban area. To realise their entrepreneurial ideas or to grow and sustain in business, they all need access to capital, labour, markets and good management skills. What differs is the availability of markets for other inputs.”

And it is exactly this gap that needs to be filled if the rural entrepreneurs are to walk shoulder-to-shoulder with urban entrepreneurs.

Further reading:

Micro Finance, Macro Growth 22 Oct, 2008

With spirits down and low in urban areas (largely because they have reached a saturation point, and partly due to the credit crunch), the next phase of development in India will come from the tier II cities and the rural parts of the country.

Whether it’s the retail, banking or telecom sector, everyone has their eyes glued on the next billion users of their facilities and services.

What is fueling this phenomenal growth? Micro finance. Two simple words that promise to change the rural landscape.

Let’s begin with telecom itself, where close to 60% growth is expected from rural India. By collaborating with micro finance institutions (MFIs), telecom operators, and equipment and handset manufacturers are helping benefit the self employed population in Indian villages. Anytime, anywhere connectivity now enables rural entrepreneurs to deliver their services on call.

More specifically, rural entrepreneurs have chosen to use credit provided by MFIs to start their own ventures or to become associated with established corporates that aim to reach the rural hinterland through local partnerships.

In the last couple of years, banks such as ICICI have also made headlines for reaching out to rural customers through its customized loan portfolio. Microfinance is seen as a mutually profitable venture that provides new business opportunities for banks, and opens up new avenues of opportunities for the rural banking customer. For example, the Financial Information Network and Operations (FINO), in association with the World Bank, is expected to run pilot projects with microfinance institutions, banks and government agencies to make use of IT in rural banking.

To ensure that microfinance is successfully implemented, it is also important for rural bankers to understand its true role. In fact, in Philippines, there are foreign-funded programs that aim to teach the rural bankers how to effectively design their microbanking-related business.

Anticipating the retail boom in the country, various agri-business consultancies and big names in the retail sector have opened the doors to microfinancing and are inviting people from rural regions to join them in taking the business of retail to hinterland. Apparently, Reliance Retail is eyeing partnerships with existing MFIs as part of its supply chain with rural and semi-urban markets. Retail biggie Bharti is also believed to have shown interest in exploring the MFI route for supporting the retail supply chain, contract farming operations and dairy sourcing.

There are as many opportunities in the rural sector, as there are industries in our country. With external factors such as the sub-prime crisis affecting our bread and butter, perhaps focusing on our internal strengths and opportunities is a good option!

Further reading: