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Mobile network builder looks to IKEA for inspiration

The curse of the flatpack.

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Mobile company VNL has taken a leaf out of Ikea's book and has developed a mobile base station that can be constructed by the customers. That way, claimed the company, it becomes more economic to offer service in rural areas in developing countries.

Most future growth for mobile operators will come in developing countries, in rural areas where subscribers will get their first phone. But the problem they face is that traditional equipment is too expensive to buy and maintain. According to Anil Raj, CEO of VNL, a Swedish-Indian start-up., to be able to address this market you have to start with a blank piece of paper, and assume that there are no roads, no electricity, no qualified personnel, and an ARPU of just $1-$2.

VNL decided on serveral approaches. First it supported only circuit-switched GSM connections, and not GPRS or 3G systems. that helped save power. In addition, the company decided to use components from consumer electronics," said Raj. The company also quickly decided to go with a solar power, the cost of which is coming down.

The end result is VNL's WorldGSM Village Site base station, with a power consumption of under 50 watts, according to Raj. A typical GSM base station last year consumed 800 watts, according to Nokia Siemens, a manufacturer of traditional network infrastructure.

However, keeping equipment costs and power consumption down isn't enough to get the job done, according to Raj. VNL has also had to rethink the way base stations are installed. The normal way of installing base stations just isn't practical when you are in the middle of nowhere. "Our vision is that villagers can go to and pick up a base station, put it on their ox-cart, travel for two days and the install it themselves," said Raj.

And that's where Ikea idea came in. VNL uses color coded cables, and when connecting it to the rest of the network a continuous beeping sound will tell the installer when the microwave link is pointing in the right direction.

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Its cost is also radically different from exiting base stations. A WorldGSM Village Site will cost about $3,500. Today it's difficult to find a base station that costs less than $25,000, according to Raj. VNL foresees a model where a village buys its own base station, to minimize the risk for operators.

Keeping equipment costs and power consumption down isn't enough to get the job done, according to Raj. VNL has also had to rethink the way base stations are installed. The normal way of installing base stations just isn't practical when you are in the middle of nowhere. "Our vision is that villagers can go to and pick up a base station, put it on their ox-cart, travel for two days and the install it themselves," said Raj.

To make that installation simpler, VNL looked to another Swedish company for inspiration: flat-pack furniture giant IKEA and has made it easier for villagers to do their own installation.

VNL uses colour coded cables, and when connecting it to the rest of the network a continuous beeping sound will tell the installer when the microwave link is pointing in the right direction.

Cracking the market for mobile equipment isn't something easily done. Selling to carriers has always been difficult for start-ups, and unlike Chinese manufacturers ZTE and Huawei, VNL doesn't have the backing of the Chinese government. But Raj is convinced the company has found a niche large enough to become a success.



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