The rapid expansion of mobile telephony is having unexpected effect: rising cost of burning diesel to power cellular base stations.
Because of the unreliability of electricity grids throughout the region, mobile phone operators depend on diesel-powered base stations to insure smooth operation. According to a new study on power sources for cell stations from the Balancing Act newsletter, few operators are making anything more than cursory searches for alternative sources, such as solar, despite the rising cost of diesel.
Since mobile operators in sub-Saharan Africa are likely to be the most profitable in the world, the incentives for reducing operating costs for essential equipment is rather low. Balancing Act reports that operators aren’t likely to raise prices either in response to higher diesel costs, but simply absorb the costs.
The resignation by operators is understandable. Base stations are the crucial link in the telephony network. They are also expensive. Unreliable electricity doesn’t only disrupt the network service (costing operators money in lost calls made) but also can harm equipment.
So the reliance on an “off-grid” power solution is pragmatic. And while solar-powered base stations are coming on line, they require higher up-front costs for operators, and more unpredictable maintenance issues. Adoption has been slow. In short, solar is sexy but the expedient choice is diesel, which has the added benefit of being readily available becuase the fuel supports a wide range of power generators throughout the region.
But expedience may benefit mobile telephony providers in the short-run, but not African people in the long run. Mobile providers would do a service to society if they worked harder to support widerangng efforts to improve electricity grids in the countries in which they operate. Electricity remains the essential technology that African societies have yet to master on an operational level.
For mobile operators, opting out of the grid is too easy. To be sure, nobile telephone service is also essential and should not be held hostage to the vagaries of African grid-electricity supplies. Yet if mobile operators simply opt out of the grid for convenience, then inevitably the grid loses one of its biggest potential supporters. After all, mobile-telephony providers are now among the largest organizations in every African country – and often the highest tax-payers. A thriving national electricity grid is ultimately in their own interest too.