About half the world's population lives in rural areas, and half of them about 1.6 billion people do so without electricity. How do you connect them to the rest of the planet when the average mobile-telephone base station requires 3,000 watts of power to run? "We re-engineered the entire GSM," says Rajiv Mehrotra, CEO of an Indian telecom company, VNL, whose low-cost, voice-only, solar-powered base stations will go to market next year in India, Africa and Southeast Asia.
VNL's base station needs less than 100 watts of power, costs $15,000 (vs. $100,000 for a conventional one) and is profitable at just $2 of revenue per user per month. Traditional GSM (global system for mobile communication) stations break even at $6. And the solar-powered units don't need India's unreliable power grid.
At those specs, microtelecom is viable in villages with as few as 100 people. Mehrotra designed the base stations for easy assembly. "Two villagers in six hours can install the whole thing," he says. Local entrepreneurs can own them. Mehrotra, an engineer, developed similar systems to bring cable, satellite TV and fixed-wireless phones to rural India. But he calls microtelecom the "most challenging and most satisfying thing I've done. Once they're connected, they start talking. They get connected. There's no question of urban and rural anymore."