Transforming India's Telecom Sector

This article is about the India Telecom Tower Industry. The issue with high operating cost + diesel pilferage in grid deficit and off-grid sites is unsustainable. Stake holders needs to move away from out dated diesel base power systems to more sustainable solar/hybrid systems.

Since the incorporation of DoT in 1985 and Trai in 1997, the telecommunication industry in India has grown to the second largest mobile phone user base in the world with over 900 mn subscribers.

This rapid growth has, however, created some major structural problems that have surfaced during the last couple of years. The rise in diesel price and wide spread diesel pilferage are serious issues affecting the sustainability of the telecom tower industry. The 2G scam, recent cancellation of 2G licenses have also contributed to the messy state it is in today.
Through pressures from the general public and NGOs like Greenpeace, TraiImandated that 50% of rural and 20% of urban sites must be retrofitted to be powered with renewable sources of energy by 2015. The tower industry has deployed about 3,000 pilot solar sites over the past few years. Unfortunately, most of the solar systems deployed have not achieved significant savings to justify a large scale deployment. This is because the 3rd generation integrated solar technology, essential to power telecom sites, was not available until recently. The fact that Bharti Infratel plans to issue an international RFP to solarize 8,000 existing sites proves that the 1,300 sites they have solarized were not good enough.

Tower and Infrastructure Provider Association (Taipa) recently issued a RFP to solarize 100,000 existing sites, based on an opex model. Based on Bharti's estimates of $37.5k per site, the cost required to solarize 100,000 towers will be in the range of $3.75 bn.
The big 5 tower companies are reported to be heavily in debt and are in no position to finance the high upfront investment required to switch to solar power.
A Solar/Grid power system in Kolar, Karnataka has demonstrated that it is possible to power the telecom sites in a grid deficit location without a DG. By doing so, it eliminates both the capital investment for the DG and the recurring expenses towards DG maintenance-diesel transportation, diesel pilferage, and the ever volatile diesel cost. The integrated Solar/Grid system has operating expenses of about `3,000 per month; a similar conventional DG/Grid powered system will cost tower owners about Rs 45,000. The entire turn-key solar solution including battery and remote monitoring comes with a 5 years warranty.
Resco doesn't have the technical expertise or the financial resources to solarize 100,000 sites. When the government owned power corporations are not able to supply power to the semi-rural and off-grid sites, it is a wishful thinking that Resco will be able to do it in an opex model.
The delay in solarizing the tower industry will cost the stakeholders dearly as the task is becoming more daunting with each passing day. The stakeholders need to take collective actions to resolve the issues in order to prevent an impending disaster. The lackadaisical attitude has to be changed immediately. Going solar is no longer an option, it is the only option, more as a matter of survival.
Recollect the Unicef posters of yesterdays and the message it spread-This universe is not inherited by you, you have borrowed it from your children. We are accountable to the generations to come.
Teckkee Shih
The author is CTO,
ALTA Energy Technologies
Article for published by Voice & Data magazine in December 2012.

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