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Making Mobile Networks Leaner, Greener and Cleaner

Vick Mamlouk, Vice President of Middle East and Africa, Andrew Solutions, explains why energy efficiency holds the key to lowering both costs and carbon emissions for mobile networks across the Middle East.

Despite the region’s extensive reserves of fossil fuels, the Middle East has become something of a test-bed for green technologies during the last decade. Projects like Masdar City in the UAE, which will be powered and cooled sustainably through a mix of solar, wind and geothermal energy, illustrate a growing desire across the region to design, test and deploy more energy efficient technologies.

This move towards greener and more energy efficient communities has not passed by mobile operators. In 2010, Vodafone Qatar and Alcatel-Lucent announced the deployment of the first hybrid powered base station in Qatar, using an integration of solar and wind energy. Similarly, Orange recently unveiled a new green tower design which operates on solar and wind power as part of a larger project to increase the use of renewable energy in Jordan.

It’s hardly surprising that more efficiently managing energy has become a key concern for mobile network operators; businesses are entering a new era where environmental issues play an influential role in brand perception. Additionally, with crude oil prices soaring above US$100 per barrel during 2011, rising energy costs provide a strong impetus for mobile operators to drive efficiencies across their extensive networks of base stations.

Fortunately, a multitude of proven, high-performance technologies exist today that can reduce base station power consumption by as much as 40 percent. So what are the options?

Green Power

Since access to electricity grids can be unreliable or non-existent in many Middle Eastern countries, back-up diesel generators are commonplace and off-grid base-stations may run entirely on diesel power. These generators are extremely expensive, not only because of the cost of diesel, but also because they require frequent maintenance and refuelling.

Renewable energy sources such as solar, wind or sustainable bio-fuels provide an alternative means of powering base stations. When used in tandem with a back-up power source, solar and wind technology can be relied on for peak period power generation. Once photovoltaic cells or a wind turbine is installed, power is almost free as these solutions require very little maintenance compared to traditional diesel generators.

The GSM Association has set a target of powering 118,000 base stations through renewable sources by 2012. Achieving this target would save up to 2.5 billion liters of diesel per year and cut annual carbon emissions by up to 6.3 million tonnes.

Reducing Site Visits

Another major area of expense that mobile operators should look to streamline is their dependence upon network site visits. Currently, experienced technicians must regularly visit each site to configure equipment, perform maintenance and implement repairs. This inefficient use of a technician’s time is often costly, as is the added expense of subsidising their travel. Every site visit expends fuel. The more trips taken, the more fuel burned - which translates to more CO2 produced.

If operators adopt the ability to remotely monitor and control base station functions, they can vastly reduce the need for physical inspections. “Soft alarms” can warn operators when equipment begins to fall below optimum performance – allowing them to choose the best time to respond and thus increasing efficiency by enabling multiple problems to be solved in one visit. Remote monitoring of fuel supplies can also ensure that truck rolls are only made when generators require refuelling – lowering the total number of truck rolls needed per year.

The ability to make remote adjustments, like altering thermostat settings, also completely negates the need for visits to make simple changes to infrastructure settings. For example, the remote tuning of antennas means adjustments can be made as many times as necessary without any additional site visits, or tower climbs to manually change an antenna’s orientation. An added benefit is that adjustable antennas can cover a wider area than their fixed-position counterparts, meaning that fewer antennas need to be installed on a tower.

Technicians also often alter the temperature settings of network sites by many degrees to make it more comfortable to work. This can create significant costs if the thermostat settings are not returned to normal when the technician leaves. If operators are able to monitor the temperature of their sites and remotely adjust thermostat settings, such unnecessary drains on OpEx can be eliminated.

Base station efficiency can be further improved by using remote monitoring software to switch-off non-essential services when traffic is low, ensuring they only consume power as and when it’s needed.

Stay Cool

The dense electronics within base stations dissipates heat which must be removed in order to ensure the proper functioning of equipment. Given that typical cooling systems consume 30 percent of the energy used by base stations,[i] they are a clear target for improvements in energy efficiency - especially given the high ambient temperatures in the Middle East.

Alternative cooling techniques, such as free-air cooling, economisers and hybrid cooling in enclosures can create significant reductions in both power usage and an operator’s carbon footprint. These techniques can be further optimised through Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) analysis and field trial testing.

Such analysis can show that free-air cooling can be sufficient to keep equipment within optimum running temperatures for certain time periods. Analysis demonstrates that air conditioning on-time can be reduced – again lowering power consumption.

Hybrid cooling systems via a direct air/ heat exchanger within enclosures can also reduce base station cooling costs by as much as 85 percent. Taken together these solutions can reduce overall site power consumption by 20 - 25 percent.

New Technologies

Alongside the two broad areas outlined above, a host of other options exist that can help mobile operators use energy more efficiently and reduce OpEx.

Modern telecoms technologies – from power amplifiers to RF antennas - have become far less electricity demanding in recent years. By deploying these new technologies, operators can significantly reduce power consumption across their networks.

Given the broad spectrum of robust solutions ready to be deployed on networks today, operators are no longer restrained by a lack of options – all they need is the will to implement them to realise dramatic reductions in costs and CO2.