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Last Updated: Friday, 18 May 2007, 14:10 GMT 15:10 UK
Remote Namibia's online solution

Much of Namibia's sparse population has no access to the country's power grid. This week Click looks at how natural energy sources and the latest in satellite technology are helping remote areas get connected.

Calling from the desert

Namibia lies on the south west coast of Africa. It is bigger than Turkey or Pakistan, but home to just two million people.

Click presenter Spencer Kelly calling from Namibia
Calling from the desert is possible with a satellite phone

From the air it is easy to see why this place is so sparsely populated. The landscape is an inhospitable mix of scrubland, mountains and majestic sand dunes. In fact, if you list the world's nations in order of population density, Namibia comes sixth from the bottom, with less than three people per square kilometre.

Although electricity, voice and data all flow here, the cables only serve the cities - the areas with enough customers in one place.

Out of town the power stops and the mobile signal fades out. If you need to make a call out here, you have to do it by satellite.

Satellite phones have been used by remote travellers for several decades. They are absolutely invaluable in areas where mobiles and landlines are out of the question.

For example, the few tourist lodges which cling to the desert hillsides not only need phone contact with the outside world, they need internet access too.

"Five years ago we were bringing in information on aeroplanes and using old fashioned satellite phones at huge expense," said Peter Dunning of the Sossusvlei Mountain Lodge

"Now we have a 24/7 internet connection via a satellite dish. All our booking information, placing orders, all that stuff now is coming in quickly and cheaply."

Personal satellite technology used to be exclusively for the wealthy, diplomats and the military, but not anymore. Satellite phones are getting smaller and cheaper.

Traditional sat phones are quite bulky - not exactly style icons - but still regularly used around the world especially in environments that are really rough.

But now a range of phones similar in size to mobiles with colour screens, cameras and text message capable are available.

It is possible to make a satellite call on a phone the size of a mobile but you will need something extra which is BGan - satellite broadband in a box.

Once BGan's satellite receiver is locked in place and connected with the network it can talk to the handset via Bluetooth and you can go ahead and make a phone call.

It is possible to go one step further by plugging in wirelessly or by USB to a laptop.

Sun cells

Namibia's capital Windhoek may wear the air of a sleepy provincial capital but communication here is sophisticated. Landlines abound, and even ultra high speed mobile networks are beginning to make their mark.

Power supply
It is too expensive to connect all of Namibia to the power grid

But venture just 28km outside and you soon reach the end of the line. That is where the rural community of Dordabis find themselves.

The locals here are fortunate: last year the electricity company connected them to the grid. That gave them a reliable power source and, equally as importantly, the local mobile network could then afford to install and run a cell site nearby instead of contemplating the costly diesel alternative.

Most of Namibia's isolated population pockets do not have it so good. Off grid, and off the radar of a mobile signal, it just has not been commercially viable to serve them.

But in a coastal nation blessed with abundant sunshine, they have come up with something a bit different, but in some ways so blindingly obvious: the world's first commercial solar and wind-powered GSM cell site.

"In a sparsely populated country like Namibia rolling out a network to communities that are widely dispersed is very expensive," explained Albertus Aochamub, from MTC, the local cell provider.

"In our case, just for the electricity supply, it cost us more than $1,000 (500) per kilometre to reach most of those communities.

"Combining both solar and wind power we're able to do that in a more cost effective manner, and also a lot more rapidly."

Two months after the work began the workers finally completed installation of the last of the 28 solar panels, which are far more efficient than they would have been even a decade ago.

Each one will deliver 190 watts to a bank of batteries below, which can store the power for up to three days.

That means even in bad weather supplies are reliable and, as a consequence, people living in the shadow of the mast should always get a signal.

Two weeks later, the wind turbine too is in, and the four-month trial can begin in earnest. The trial will be monitored closely not only by the interested parties but by operators elsewhere too.

Linda Brown from Motorola said: "We have lots of operators in the UK, as well as other parts of the globe, where they're using diesel generators, where they can't get a grid connection and that can be costly in terms of refuelling.

"There's also carbon footprint issue. So these types of solutions could be effective for them."

Country profile: Namibia
15 May 07 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Namibia
15 May 07 |  Country profiles
Mobile networks powered by wind
13 Feb 07 |  Technology

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