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Supplying diesel to the BTS: An every day nightmare for African mobile operators

The business of running a mobile operation in Africa compared to Europe or any developed countries should be roughly the same but there are major differences and it starts with the core element of a mobile operator’s network, the base station. Running base stations in Africa is different from running base stations in Europe. The issues around powering a base station for example are altogether dealt with differently in Africa. Isabelle Gross looks at what it takes to African mobile operators to ensure their base stations are up and running 24/7.

A large number of countries in Sub-Sahara Africa still have little electricity and an electricity grid that too often stops at the outskirt of the capital city. At least in the capital city mobile operators should have a choice of the type of power – electricity from the grid or electricity from the diesel generator – that they will use for their base stations. Unfortunately even in the capital city the supply of electricity from the grid is unreliable with frequent and lasting load shedding. Mobile operators can’t afford to have a base station down because it means a loss of revenue for them. Diesel generators remain the most reliable power source when it comes to keeping base stations up and running 24/7 but this comes at a “high” cost for most African mobile operators.

In small towns and further in rural areas, the only option (beside renewable energy sources) is diesel generators but getting the diesel there is not always an easy and fast task. I recently travelled from Monrovia, the capital city of Liberia to Ganta, a town in the East not far away from the border with Guinea. The distance between the two places is roughly 300km and it took us approximately 4 hours to reach Ganta which was not bad. The road between Monrovia and Ganta is tarmac but there are so many potholes in the road especially after Banga that it quite common to see cars, trucks and buses driving on the wrong side of the road because the state of the road is slightly better. My trip was during the dry season but in the rainy season flooding and mudslides must make this journey much more difficult. The COO of Total in Liberia told me that last  year one of their fuel trucks got stuck six days because of some flooding of the road. During my trip, we stopped in Totola, a remote place high in the hills, an ideal place for a base station. The last hundred meters before reaching the base station was just a dirt track with a very sharp slope. On the way up, I just wondered how the heck a fuel truck makes it to the top during the rainy season. Fuelling base stations in rural areas is not easy and so many things can go wrong until the fuel truck reaches the base station.

                                                                            

Balancing act

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