Mobile industry plans to light up Africa

The mobile industry has joined forces with the World Bank's Lighting Africa initiative to help share excess power from off-grid base stations with people living nearby, industry organization GSM Association (GSMA) announced on Wednesday.

The project is called Community Power from Mobile, and will help mobile operators and tower-sharing companies in developing countries to pass on excess power generated by their off-grid base stations -- which aren't connected to an electrical grid and instead use diesel or increasingly cleaner alternatives such as solar and wind power -- to local communities, according to the GSMA.

Today, about 1.6 billion people in the developing world live without access to electricity and 485 million of them have access to mobile phone services, the GSMA estimates. At the same time off-grid base stations typically have 5 kilowatts of excess power each, it said

The extra power will initially be used to charge devices such as phones, lanterns and batteries, according to David Taverner, senior program manager for Green Power for Mobile at the GSMA. But ultimately the goal is to power hospitals, schools and homes, as well. Five kilowatts can, for example, power 30 homes, Taverner said.

Four trials, two each in India and East Africa, are scheduled to start during the first quarter of next year and will last for about six months. The details of another four trials are still being worked out, Taverner said.

The mobile operators aren't doing this for purely altruistic reasons. Besides making money from providing the power, previous experiences show that the theft of diesel goes down when the people living near base stations can use power from them. Also, if it becomes easier for people to charge their phones, the amount they spend on mobile services goes up, according to the GSMA.