They come chiefly in silver or black, with the occasional red or orange model for users determined to be avant-garde.
Now handsets and associated paraphernalia are finally going green. That’s green as in environmentally friendly, although much of the equipment would benefit from being slightly less drab.
Take the 40m-tall concrete tower designed by Ericsson, for example. It may not look aesthetically pleasing, but that’s a minor hiccup that an imaginative network operator could soon remedy with a funky lick of paint. The tower is a base station prototype that will soon begin trials to see how well it meets its promise of greatly reduced running costs.
Operators setting up or expanding their networks still let the buying and running costs dictate choices of equipment, but they are bowing increasingly to consumer pressure for more environmentally sensitive kit.
“You have to be seen to be green,” says Steve Barnett, Ericsson’s head of network and technology consulting. “And we can save people a lot of money.”
Traditional base stations burn up a lot of power to feed signals from antennae at the top to transmission equipment at the bottom. These towers house all the equipment at the top, eliminating the need to feed the signals up and down. Nor do they need air conditioning, as they are cooled by natural air flow.
Batteries to power the equipment are buried to keep them cool. When the volume of traffic dips at off-peak periods, standby mode kicks in to save power.
Ericsson has yet to finalise the price, but hopes to match the lower running costs with savings on the initial purchase, too.
The towers debuted this month at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, where virtually every operator and equipment manufacturer was striving to save the planet.
African operator Celtel boasts about being the first in the world to install hybrid base stations designed for rural areas. Another Ericsson innovation, they combine a diesel generator and a bank of batteries that take it in turns to power the equipment for six-hour periods. The diesel recharges batteries, and running on battery power slashes the fuel bill in half.
Celtel is installing them throughout Uganda, where the electricity supply is erratic and where diesel deliveries to remote areas can now be reduced.
Nokia is also turning green, with CEO Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo whipping out a natty clamshell handset on stage in Barcelona. Cutely named the Remade, it’s built partly from recycled cans, plastic bottles and used car tyres. The hitch is its total inability to actually make or receive a call, but Nokia is working on that one.
China Mobile, the world’s largest operator in subscriber numbers, has introduced a going green project. “Global climate change is one of the current challenges,” says CEO Wang Jianzhou. The network already serves 370-million users and adds a mind-boggling 5-million more each month, so cutting its electricity consumption is a priority.
But its green migration will cost it initially. “In the short term it will increase our capex, but in the long term it will benefit not only society but the corporation itself because the new equipment will save our energy consumption costs,” says Jianzhou.
China Mobile’s 300000 base stations soak up 73% of its power use, so it has signed deals with suppliers to buy solar- and wind powered base stations. It collects and recycles dead batteries and old cellphones from customers and rewards them with free airtime, and is modifying and paring back packaging materials.
Last week 3Com also jumped on the green bandwagon by touting environmentally responsible networking equipment so its customers can be more energy efficient. About 1% of a typical office block’s electricity use goes on hi-tech wiring, says Tracy Lawler, 3Com SA’s distribution manager.
Organisations that use its new range can cut energy use by a network by up to 78%, she says. It achieves that partly by reducing power consumption of its products so less heat is generated and less cooling is needed in the data centre. The results can let a typical network that is never turned off at night save enough energy to illuminate 62 homes for a year and prevent 56 tons of CO² entering the atmosphere.
So far, tingeing the airwaves green is just a bonus for operators and equipment suppliers, but soon it could be an essential part of their armoury.