Vodafone has partnered with Crossflow Energy and Cornerstone to launch the first off-grid mobile phone tower in the United Kingdom (UK). The move has brought 4G coverage to a rural farm in Pembrokeshire, Wales, using a wind turbine and solar to power the fully renewable mast.
In other words, the 4G mobile phone tower doesn’t rely on the traditional electricity grid – renewable sources power it. It also means that rural areas can eventually find a solution to “not spots”, where coverage has been lacking due to telcos being traditionally reluctant to invest heavily in telecommunications infrastructure.
In this article, we’ll tell you about Vodafone’s off-grid mobile tower in the UK and what it might mean for Australians in the bush. Read on to find out.
Mobile phone towers require electricity to work, making it difficult for telcos to service areas where electricity is nonexistent or unstable. As a result, such places are referred to as “not spots”, where Internet access is significantly slow, if it exists at all.
Vodafone seems to have found a way around this problem with its new off-grid mast. The telco partnered with Crossflow Energy, which designed small wind turbines to power the mobile phone 4G towers without the need for traditional on-grid electricity.
The masts also use solar panels and store energy in batteries for a fully-renewable off-grid solution, giving the technology the potential to solve the issue of “not spots” in rural areas.
Vodafone has partnered with Cornerstone, a mobile infrastructure company, to help roll out the off-grid towers. The telco will run a two-year trial to assess the technology. For now, Vodafone has only turned on the first mobile phone tower on a farm in Wales, but we expect many more to roll out during the two-year trial.
And if all goes well, perhaps TPG Telecom and Vodafone could bring the technology to rural Australia in the future, allowing everyone to get great deals on SIM plans regardless of location.
Vodafone’s announcement is a big deal for many reasons. Here are a few of them:
- Less money and time spent on rolling out mobile phone towers
Because Vodafone’s off-grid masts don’t need traditional on-grid electricity, the telco won’t have to dig trenches for electricity cables to power them. That translates into a ton of savings, which could encourage the telco to expand into the most remote areas of any region.
- No more “not spots”
As we’ve mentioned, some rural areas are so far off urban developments that they lack reliable Internet networks – if they even have any. Such “no spots” will now have a reliable alternative with Vodafone’s off-grid mobile phone towers.
- Quiet, efficient wind turbines
Wind turbines are traditionally loud, and they haven’t been that reliable when miniaturised. But Crossflow Energy claims their small wind turbines solve these issues and more. According to Crossflow Energy CEO, “Until now, the use of ‘small wind’ turbines in the race to net-zero has been limited due to performance, reliability, and planning concerns, such as noise, vibration, and damage to ecology… The unique design of our wind turbine addresses all these challenges head-on.”
These days, people are more conscious about how their actions affect the environment. As a result, companies have become concerned as well, including telcos. Vodafone is taking a step forward in the quest for net-zero energy by rolling out their off-grid mobile phone towers. The technology is 100% renewable, giving the telco an even greater appeal. Further, the turbines are less likely to kill birds because of how they are designed. They appear as solid objects which can be easily detected and avoided to keep birds safe.
While Vodafone’s off-grid phone tower is a significant step, it’s not available in Australia yet, and we don’t know when it will be.
In the meantime, satellite Internet services are the most practical alternative to mobile and fixed-line solutions in rural areas. That’s because such services don’t require the traditionally expensive infrastructure of mobile networks.
For rural Australians, NBN’s Sky Muster satellite Internet was the only option in this space for a while and many were entirely unsatisfied with the service.
However, new companies are now entering this space, promising Australians much faster and more reliable satellite Internet alternatives. Here’s a look at two options:
Elon Musk’s SpaceX satellite phone company has launched Starlink in Australia, a mobile satellite service. The technology uses LEO satellites to provide mobile data and more, making it suitable for those in rural areas. Starlink download speeds range from 50Mbps to 150Mbps, dwarfing Sky Muster’s 12Mbps to 25Mbps.
- Telstra and OneWeb
Telstra recently announced a partnership with OneWeb, a government-owned company that provides satellite Internet in the UK. While we haven’t heard much beyond their Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) announcement, we expect to see Telstra roll out the satellite mobile phone service in the future.
Here in Australia, it’s easy to forget that Vodafone is a huge multinational enterprise. One of the benefits of such a scale is having the ability to trial new ideas in different locations to see what works and then deploy the successful ideas more broadly around the world. Vodafone even has a part of its company applied to this specific role, called ‘Vodafone Global’ – a whole building of people in Newbury working hard to ‘synergise’.
While Vodafone’s self-powering, off-grid mobile tower idea is, at the moment, confined to the UK, it has clear potential for Australia – perhaps more so here than in any other place. If Vodafone does crack the code, in the medium term, the concept of self-powering masts could significantly impact the spotty coverage currently available in rural Australia