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Telecom Review: Altobridge – Making Remote Villages Commercially Viable

“A fifth of the world’s population is not connected to a mobile network”. This was the statement that caught my attention when we spoke to Peter Tuomey, Marketing Director of Altobridge, at their stand during CommunicAsia 2011. During the interview with Telecom Review the company gave us a glimpse into how the impossibility to some can be made possible with a simple solution – providing commercially viable network coverage to remote areas.

First, can you give us a brief about your business?

In short, our solution is solar powered, satellite backhauled, 2G or 3G solution that is specifically designed to bring mobile voice and mobile broadband connectivity to remote, unconnected communities with between 500 to 1,200 subscriber potential. We work directly with network operators who seek to expand their network into remote communities. We define remote in terms of transmission not by geography.

Remote for us are areas where satellite is the only viable solution for mobile backhaul. That definition of remote generally coincides with the geographical definition also, in that fiber expansion is commercially restrictive and microwave has line-of-sight issues to contend with across remote and challenging terrain.

We refer to our product as the Altobridge lite-site™. It has been specifically designed to optimize satellite bandwidth and minimize power consumption. It comprises an intelligent 2-transceiver base station – the altoPod™ – which is in fact part-BTS and part-BSC. It is both solar power and satellite backhaul efficient. We call it the ‘lite-site’ for two reasons. Firstly, because it is physically light; all site-build components are typically transportable on the back of a 4X4 off-road vehicle. Secondly, it is light in terms of its operational overheads – power consumption and backhaul. It has an average power consumption of 90watts and because it is solar powered, it is virtually maintenance free while in transmission terms, each 2-transceiver altoPod™ requires only 50kps of satellite backhaul, making it ultra cost effective to run.

Who are your existing customers in the Asia Pacific (APAC) region?

To date, we have deployed on the Maxis network in Malaysia, with PT Indosat in Indonesia and with Mobicom in Mongolia.

In the case of PT Indosat, they deployed across a cluster of remote villages and with our Local Connectivity™ feature deployed there, it means that calls within villages and calls between villages are all classed as local calls. So even if the villages are say 5km or more apart, calls between them are still local and because these calls are locally switched, they require zero backhaul. This also enhances the call quality for the end users.

In East Malaysia with Maxis and in Mongolia with Mobicom, the focus is more enterprise based, typically remote palm oil and mining communities.  Some of these camps are very remote; a 14 hour off-road drive from the nearest large population centre would not be an uncommon requirement to reach some of these locations. But what all of these sites do have in common are remote communities with relatively high disposable income where a high percentage of that income is spent on mobile telephony, such as keeping in-touch with family and friends back home for instance.

Can you elaborate on your presence across the globe?

Aside from the network operator’s mentioned above, our solution is also being rolled-out by 2 large network operators in Africa and we have also deployed in many Pacific Island communities such as the Solomon Islands, Cook Islands, Tonga and Guam.

Elsewhere, we have worked with Oman Mobile but in a slightly different form than the lite-site™ solution. In the coming weeks we will be announcing details of a new collaboration with a major network operator in the Middle East who are about to embark on a programme of connecting unconnected communities across vast regions, using the Altobridge lite-site™ as their chosen solution.

Moving forward, how big is the scope. You deal with coverage of remote areas while operators’ current focus is in ever expanding cities?

That is true but mobile penetration in cities is either saturated or nearly so. In such markets, consumers are the only real winners as operators’ tariffs tumble while they compete fiercely with one another in highly price-sensitive, finite subscriber pools. We believe that cost effective and profitable network expansion to rural and remote communities is operators’ only real long-term option for incremental subscriber growth. In markets where operators have already taken this initiative, we have consistently seen low Subscriber Acquisition Cost, higher than expected ARPUs and zero churn, all at levels that have surprised both optimists and skeptics alike.

Our 2 key markets at present are South East Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. However, tie-ups with mobile network operators in the Middle East/North Africa and Latin America are very much on our radar also and they are markets that we very much plan to expand into.

How can operators benefit from your solutions?

As mentioned, it is beyond the urban and even beyond the rural conurbations where real subscriber growth will occur over time. The two biggest challenges to date for network expansion into unconnected regions have been power supply and backhaul costs. However, through 9 years of in-house R&D, we have removed those barriers. For instance, with only 50kps of satellite backhaul required per altoPod™, a network operator is looking at a monthly operational cost of only $200-$300 to provide voice and SMS connectivity at each remote site. Also, because we’ve designed it to be solar efficient, no monthly fuel costs are incurred which otherwise would be if diesel generators were required. In addition, because the altoPod™ is an outdoor, passively cooled unit, no expensive air-con OPEX is incurred, even in the hottest and most humid of climates. Overall, it means the only monthly OPEX per site is the $200-300 backhaul cost.

On the CAPEX side, the altopod™ and its antenna are pole-mountable, therefore the need for traditional tower-type structures are avoided. What all of this amounts to when all the site-build costs are taken into account is that the capital cost of one Altobridge lite-site™ is between one-quarter and one-fifth of the cost of a traditional tower mounted, micro-BTS installation.

The biggest challenge and obstacle that we face in our market, is not a lack of market size or market potential. It is the ability to make mobile operators aware of the commercial viability of extending their coverage footprint beyond cities and towns into remote, unconnected communities. It is a case of perception versus reality; the perception is that extending coverage into remote areas is commercially unviable but in our experience, the evidence based reality is somewhat different.

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