Lives go wireless for villagers thanks to new base station project

18 January 2021

With a population of about 2,000, Duse is a remote village in north-eastern Kenya – 360km from the capital, Nairobi -- where most people are livestock farmers and others are involved in small-scale mining and agriculture.  When they needed internet access it meant a walk of 20km to the nearest town.

While the cities of Nairobi and Mombasa have good wireless infrastructure, just 22 per cent of Kenya’s population – most of whom live in villages – have internet access.

Rural connectivity for small populations spread over a wide area is expensive and takes a long time to build, reports the GSMA (GSM Association).

In partnership with Safaricom, Huawei developed a mobile base station called RuralStar, specifically designed to provide 2G voice, SMS and mobile money services, and 3G broadband data services. It has also been used in Ghana by MTN.

Connectivity to the main network is provided via a relay transmission from a nearby 4G base station, without using cabling or physical connectivity: this is cheaper to install and more power-efficient to run. The smaller coverage area and lower running costs mean that the base station can be powered by solar energy, with a battery back-up for night-time – which saves on the set-up and running costs of a diesel-powered generator.

This solution combines Relay Remote Node (RRN) wireless backhaul, a simple pole tower and a green solar energy.  It also supports multiple RATs, multiple frequency bands, and multi-level cascading.

RuralStar is designed to provide communications services only to the immediate surroundings of the village, so the antenna mast is smaller and cheaper than usual.  Connectivity to the main network is provided via wireless a nearby 4G base station.

Within two months more than 550 people had connected for the first time. Now, people can now call for ambulance services, which was previously impossible.  A nurse who works at the local dispensary can now access online health information to help treat her patients. Previously she had to travel for 20 kilometres to the nearest phone to place orders for new medicines.  Now she can do this whenever supplies run low and correct stock levels can be maintained avoiding both wastage and shortages. Health reports can be emailed instead of hand delivered to the authorities 40km away in Garba Tula town. Previously the nurse went from door to door to inform people whenever food relief arrived. Now this can be done by phone.

Villagers reported security as a serious problem but now this has improved because incidents such as cattle rustling can now be reported quickly and the Kenya Police Reserve and local administration police can mobilise faster.

They also now have access to online information, can monitor events and submit reports more quickly.

In addition, Kenya’s popular mobile money service, Safaricom’s M-PESA application, became accessible for the first time, and an M-PESA store is now in the village. Villagers and shopkeepers use their phones to save and store money, to trade goods, re-stock their stores and to sell their products securely and with convenience.

One man reported that, before the service began, to withdraw 1,000 Kenya shillings a return motorcycle ride would cost the same as the withdrawal, leaving him with nothing.

The local store was able to expand and a number of new jobs have been created. For many workers in Duse whose families live elsewhere, they can now communicate more regularly and send money to distant loved ones.  With the help of the local leaders, several young people in Duse have also been able to apply online for jobs, scholarships and college placements that would have been impossible before.

It has also resulted in improved education.  The Duse primary school has 320 students and eight teachers. According to the head teacher, attendance has improved because of the improved security situation within the village.  Teachers with smartphones have been able to access information online and show videos and other content to students to aid in their teaching, as well as staying up to date with government advice on education.

GSMA reports that, while other challenges associated with the digital divide remains, such as improving basic knowledge and skills to access mobile services, RuralStar and Safaricom have brought a real improvement to Duse villagers’ lives within just a few months. Recognising the need to help people get more use out of their mobile devices and the internet, training is being provided to the community so they can access more services and information.

It says that Huawei’s RuralStar2.0 was specifically designed to provide 2G voice, SMS and mobile money services; and 3G broadband data services.

With low power consumption, new battery technology, easy installation and innovations in both technology and tower design, RuralStar shortens the return on investment for operators to less than five years and promotes new rural network construction in emerging markets.

It had been installed in a number of other countries, including Thailand, Ghana, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Mexico.

GSMA says the RuralStar self-contained cell-site design makes it possible to extend cellular coverage economically to even very small communities with minimal site preparation or infrastructure requirements.

It cites these advantages: easily deployed wireless backhaul based on LTE self-backhaul rather than satellite or microwave, that significantly reduces transmission costs; automatic antenna alignment, further reducing civil work costs; the option to utilise existing infrastructure such as electricity poles or other utility poles; poles can be as short as 12m instead of a 30-50m tower.

In addition there is a full coverage, energy-efficient solar option for where no existing power infrastructure currently exists; the low power-draw BBU and RRU are the most efficient in the industry; total power consumption at around 200W~220W makes solar power a viable option; and savings in operating expenditure compared with diesel fuel costs and maintenance; robust materials to withstand a wide temperature range; new battery technology which allows lithium and lead-acid batteries to work together, extending battery life-span from two to five years; anti-theft fencing and anti-climb wire to prevent damage or theft (batteries can be underground to prevent theft).