Gizmos & Gadgets: New Phone Transmitter Widens Reach of Cellular Networks in Africa

Cell phones in combination with the Internet and cloud computing applications are changing the world faster than any other technological innovation. But the lack of an assured supply of electricity keeps one billion humans from benefiting from the world of mobile telephony. A new cellular base station that consumes 50 watts  and weighs 4 kilograms (10 pounds) may prove to be a real game changer.

Called the CompactRAN, it is a product of Vanu, a Cambridge, Massachusetts company, it is the lightest outdoor base station and can easily be mounted on poles or walls. It is designed to be upgraded to 3G and 4G networks and currently supports GSM and CDMA mobile network standards. It doesn’t require a wired telecom infrastructure in order to operate. And it is designed as a low maintenance device.

Vanu developed the CompactRAN for rural cell phone coverage. It can be powered through solar panels, batteries, generators or the electrical grid. To achieve low power consumption, instead of multiple processors, the device uses one to manage signal processing, filtering and the sending and receiving of telephone communications. It requires a second piece of equipment called a backhaul which consumes 25 watts and provides the connectivity to the rest of the telecommunications network in the country.

Combined with less power using smartphones, CompactRAN will make a difference to many in the Developing World. It is first being tested in rural Zambia, in Sub-Saharan Africa. The company eventually hopes to install up to 1 million of these stations each providing connectivity for 1,000 people. That’s how you add a billion voices and minds to the growing collective wisdom that is today’s 21st century.


CompactRAN base station


Len Rosen lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He is a researcher and writer who has a fascination with science and technology. He is married with a daughter who works in radio, and a miniature red poodle who is his daily companion on walks of discovery.