Leading South African wireless communication specialist Multisource Telecoms has won a contract that will see 20 low-cost GSM towers bringing cell phone communications to rural Zambians for the first time. 
Supplied by US-based wireless telecommunications giant Vanu, these Compact RAN base stations are both power and form factor optimised allowing them to operate purely on “green power”, solar and battery only, and are easily installed on the rooftops of local businesses, community centres, local  churches, or very simple low cost radio masts.
“The order was placed following a successful pilot phase which proved that in addition to the capital outlay being less than a tenth of that of traditional macro base stations, maintenance costs of the compact base stations are minimal,” says Richard Smuts-Steyn, CEO of Multisource.
“This marks the first time that African GSM providers will be able to economically service rural and isolated communities.”
The decision to extend GSM network coverage to Zambia’s isolated rural areas followed a call by the country’s telecommunications regulatory authority for network operators to fulfil their universal service obligations.
According to a study by data analyst Wireless Intelligence in November last year, 37%, or almost 5,1-million Zambians are not subscribed to a mobile network. Most of these live in isolated rural pockets where the average return per user is so low that the cost of installing and maintaining macro base transceiver stations has been unfeasible.
“Capital expenditure on individual macro base stations and large power generators make rural communications prohibitive. This problem is further exasperated by maintenance, running and security costs that inevitably run into the tens of thousands of US dollars in annual operational expenses,” Smuts-Steyn explains.
“Operating and capital outlay costs of Multisource’s compact base stations are 80% to 90% lower than this.”
Lack of GSM network coverage in deeply rural areas is not unique to Zambia. Worldwide there are an estimated 3,2-billion unique subscribers, 1,8-billion short of the five billion addressable market expected by 2017. The vast majority of this potential market is based in rural areas, especially those in the developing African nations, not serviced by cell phone networks.
“Compact base stations are a particularly apt solution to the constraints inherent in rural areas,” says Smuts-Steyn. “Being solar and battery powered, they don’t rely on the existence of a terrestrial power grid, generators or a constant supply of diesel, and the need for good road access to deliver the diesel is eliminated.”
“Securing the compact base stations can become a means of community upliftment instead of a major cost – since they can be installed on rooftops, arrangements can be made with the owners of the buildings to monitor and protect them.”
The compact base station solution not only opens up a new market to service providers that was previously uneconomical to reach, thereby allowing them to fulfil their universal service obligations, but can also be used to replace existing macro base stations that are not profitable.
“We commend the Zambian telecommunications authority for their proactive approach in working with the networks to develop the rural GSM network and expect to see other countries adopt this solution in the near future,” Smuts-Steyn says.