When Solar meets Wireless – rural communications solution

solar_panelsWe all know that the present telcos they have NO interest in extending their services to rural areas.


I wonder what has changed this time around that will make the likes of Econet, NetOne, TelOne, Powertel, Telecel and others to suddenly develop a keen interest in deploying coverage in rural Zimbabwe, asks ROBERT NDLOVU in the first of a three-part series on solutions to rural communications in Zimbabwe.

Recently the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (Potraz) made an announcement that it had committed US$24 million from the Universal Services Fund (USF) for implementing eight projects in the rural areas. No specifics were given as to which telecoms operators had been tasked to carry out the rural network outreach programs. Also no specific areas in the eight provinces were made public by Eng. Charles Sibanda who made the announcements.

Studies worldwide have identified that telecommunications is an important tool for the economic development and self-sufficiency of any society.

Despite these potential benefits it is apparent that a range of problems needs to be addressed before this opportunity can be realized in Zimbabwe. Most of these rural communities are geographically isolated and economically disadvantaged, and have generally not attracted the interest of commercial service providers.

The announcement by POTRAZ is good news on paper at least. We all know the attitude of the present telcos, in that they have NO interest in extending their services to rural areas. I wonder what has changed this time around that will make the likes of Econet, NetOne, TelOne, Powertel, Telecel and others to suddenly develop a keen interest in deploying coverage in rural Zimbabwe. Maybe through the new service providers like Aquiva Wireless, Africom and others we are going to see something being done to bring digital economy to rural areas.

This is my public request to Potraz & the Minister of ICT, Nelson Chamisa, under whose Ministry these projects will be rolled out:

Could we please have a publication of (1) which companies are receiving money from the Universal Services Fund and (2) which 8 areas have been ear-marked for rural network deployments? That way we will know who to hold accountable with public funds should the areas ear-marked for network coverage be still with NO coverage 3 years from today.

(Reference examples where some A2 farmers received farming inputs from government and the nation will have to import grain leaving some people wondering what happened to the farming inputs.)

What could be done to bring ICT and telephony to Nkayi, Gokwe, Guruve, Chiadzwa and Wedza, just to mention a few?

Rural Connectivity

In the game of chess there is what is called twin forking where you pin two strong pieces on the board by one move. This is what this article is about. Addressing Africas two hindrances to bridge the digital divide starts with addressing electricity supply and connectivity technologies – solar energy for power and wireless technology for connectivity. Easier said than done, but NOT impossible. The solar cell, which can function on minimal natural light, enables a phone to be installed in remote areas where it is impractical to run power cables to the unit. If insufficient light is available the device can be backed up by a battery.

NetOne last year installed a solar powered base station to avert the ZESA power outages.

Solar Primer

Solar panels convert photons of light into electrical current by a process known as the “photovoltaic effect”. This essentially means that the solar energy illuminating is causing electrons in a solar panel to become excited. These electrons are then directed into an electric current by a built-in electromagnetic field. Africa receives a lot of sunshine because most countries are not too far from the Equator. A standard way to measure the amount of sunshine received in an area is called – insolation. This is expressed as kilowatt hours per square meter per day. No rocket science involved here southern Africa has higher insolation values than Canada!

Typical average annual insolation levels:

Central Australia = 5.89 kWh/m2/day – Very High

Bulawayo, Zimbabwe = 4.5 kWh/m2/day – High

Helsinki, Finland = 2.41 kWh/m2/day – Very Low

Solar equipment

Deployment of these systems is NOT too complex if done by trained personal. It involves system sizing which basically includes estimating the power consumption by the system. Batteries are used to store electrical energy to power the system at night or during times when sunshine is at its lowest by use of chargers.

Most end user wireless equipment has pretty low power consumption levels but transmitters used by the service provider will need larger solar systems which means digging deeper into the pocket – one reason that scares most people way from deploying solar powered systems.

Wireless Primer

The term wireless is pretty broad in the true sense of the word. On the streets of Bulawayo or Harare this means a cell phone to the average citizen. Accurate in a sense. I am not offering a wireless tutorial here, but tech savvy readers must realize and appreciate that the bulk of the readers are not as tech savvy and as such a clearer explanation of what wireless technology is, will go a long way into unlocking what its full potential is.

Wireless technology revolves around the ability to send electromagnetic signals (radio waves) over the air using a transmitter with a receiver on the other end. A simple example would be the traditional Supersonic or WRS radio set where you tune into radio 2 or radio 4 to listen to your favorite programs. This is a one way radio system, where the user ONLY receives and does NOT talk back. The same technology is used for cellphones with the difference that the user can talk back to the sender.

This is facilitated by use of base stations that cellphone operators like Econet, NetOne or Telecel deploy to send calls to you. TV also uses wireless technology. And so whats the difference? The difference lies in what frequencies a network operator is allowed to transmit and receive signals. The way the GSM operators operate would be the same way that you can wind your FM/AM dial to tune in to your favorite radio station at a technical and circuitry level.

Wireless technologies are characterized by their frequency range, their coverage area, signal loss, and transmission power. But suffice to say here that the different wireless technologies include, but NOT limited to, GSM, Wi-Fi, WiMax, Satellite, Blue Tooth etc.

The unique position with wireless technologies lies in their ability of NOT wanting to use copper cables to send signals. But each country must regulate who uses which frequency otherwise there will be congestion caused by interference and it will be chaotic. This is one of the roles of a telecoms regulator to manage frequency spectrums like Potraz in the Zimbabwe sense. Otherwise if there is no control you shouldnt be surprised to hear some ZRP messages on your cellphone assuming your Nokia receiver can receive the signals. Dont miss Part II in our next issue. Ndlovu is an ICT consultant based in San Jose, California.

Post published in: World News

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