In Africa, the availability and quality of the electrical power grid vary greatly. In many of the countries we’ve worked in, half the tower sites or more are off-grid. In others, such as South Africa, only a very small percentage of cell sites are operating as off-grid hybrids.
The majority of the nearly 150,000 cell sites in sub-Saharan Africa are still operated by MNOs. But towercos are now in charge of nearly 40% of the continent’s sites. One new and increasingly popular option we’re seeing among network operators is to push site power provision towards energy service companies (ESCOs). No matter who is managing the power, the challenges of operating mobile telecommunications sites in Africa provide a huge incentive to use advanced energy data monitoring and energy-saving technologies. As a result, some African networks are actually ahead of their contemporaries elsewhere in the world.
The single largest challenge: power
In some parts of Africa, network operators do not have access to a reliable electric grid. But this issue affects not only tower sites, it also impacts users. You can’t access a mobile network if you have no way to charge your phone. In regions where phone charging is not a problem, many people are still on 3G or 2G networks due to the lack of widespread 4G coverage. As 4G network coverage expands, tower site energy demands will only increase since the new networks will in many cases be layered on top of the legacy 2G and 3G infrastructures.
The difficulty of visiting sites
Visiting a tower costs money, no matter what continent it is located on. You must pay the technician’s wages. There is also the fuel consumed during travel, and anyone who’s travelled on rural African roads as we have will tell you: it can be a very time-consuming proposition. The distances between sites are also much greater. So you’re releasing a lot of CO2 into the atmosphere, in most cases from a diesel engine, each time you visit a site.
In Africa, however, labour expense for technicians is not the largest cost generated by a tower site visit. Because the technicians here need protection from armed guards to do their jobs safely. In the country’s northern regions, security may cost as much as $5000 per site visit. In this scenario, equipment that lowers the number of site visits pays for itself many times over if it can prevent just one unnecessary visit.
Collecting and managing data can reduce site visits by nearly one third
As many as 25% of site visits find no fault in the equipment. For another 10% of site visits, the technician lacks the parts they need to complete the repair, triggering a second site visit that could have been avoided through remote diagnosis. Operators can prevent these types of unnecessary site visits by coupling the existing power system controller at the site with software on the backend.
The energy data management offering from Delta with its ORION controller and iDEAn software is just such a solution. It allows users with appropriate security clearance to monitor, troubleshoot and configure base station passive devices remotely.
Another common reason a site visit is required in Africa is to refuel or repair diesel generators. With remote monitoring, it’s possible to see actual fuel levels instead of setting a refuelling schedule based on an estimate. That’s a huge advantage, especially considering the frequency of diesel fuel theft.
Data allows for network-wide optimisation
Besides limiting the number of site visits, energy data management systems like Delta’s are also excellent sources of data that can be used to optimise power consumption across entire mobile networks. Connecting with all the data sources at the site, the controller functions as a site-to-server gateway. Modern systems incorporate a modem, IoT sim, and of course a cloud platform to collect the site data. With all this information fed into a single source of truth, operators can find which optimisations will benefit individual sites the most and develop a plan.
Energy data enables targeted deployment of energy-saving technologies
Network and tower operators can reduce energy costs and greenhouse emissions by making sites more efficient and deploying renewable energy. Using environmental data, it becomes easy to see which sites will benefit most from energy optimisation and hybrid power solutions. Air conditioners can make way for free cooling wherever the data shows switching is feasible, for example, and information on battery capacity vs. power consumption can help determine which sites can operate off-grid or as hybrids.
The perfect continent for saving energy
Not only are energy-saving solutions necessary, they are also very effective in Africa due to the more stable climatic conditions and good solar irradiation. It is even possible to go completely grid-independent with a mix of solar and battery power. In regions with non-existent or unreliable electricity grids, the savings potential is enormous. In most cases, diesel generator refuelling can be greatly optimised. Together, these measures result in considerable cost savings and reductions in CO2 emissions.
Big financial incentives for energy efficiency
Towercos in Africa are not yet dominant, but they have expanded rapidly in recent years. With the exception of some South African towercos, most offer power as a service. In such constellations, MNOs define their power uptime requirements in service level agreements. If the towerco fails to meet these requirements, hefty penalties can result. When energy efficiency at sites improves, however, the financial rewards go to the towercos. This situation has created a strong incentive to boost energy efficiency, which reduces the cost of supplying power and at the same time ensures reliability.
Legacy infrastructure and the future of efficient tower sites
In Africa, grid connections, diesel generators, and lead-acid batteries remain common. Many of these batteries are installed in air-conditioned enclosures. Upgrading to lithium-ion battery technology could reduce cooling requirements by a few degrees, in some cases this might even be enough to forego air conditioning. However, many operators have extensive experience with lead-acid batteries. They are cautious about switching to a new technology. In this situation, it is wise to trust manufacturers with considerable lithium-ion experience and a track record of mass-producing reliable products. Existing lead-acid battery manufacturers may not all fit this bill.
A sunny outlook
Another key technology for enabling hybrid and off-grid sites is solar power. Even at the current relatively low fuel prices, solar payback times are now trending under two years in many regions. The only challenge here is renting the necessary space to install the arrays at some sites. Some African nations already have as many as 10,000 hybrid-powered sites in operation. As with lithium-ion batteries, this new technology demands new skills. Tower operators and MNOs however will want to keep operations and maintenance as simple as possible. Choosing vendors with large portfolios, a global service footprint, and experience across as many of these new technologies as possible will help limit complexity.
Saving more than just money
With diesel theft, battery theft, the security worries site visits can involve, and rising energy prices, hybrid sites provide energy security that is very attractive in Africa. But there is more than just money to consider. All 54 African nations have signed the Paris Agreement, and many are making significant progress towards their climate goals. Energy-efficient telecommunications networks can make a meaningful contribution here. Combined with effective energy data management systems, telcos and towercos will know exactly how much energy, money, and CO2 emissions they’re saving.
For all these reasons, Africa may soon show the rest of the world just how efficient mobile networks can be.