23 April 2015


    Vodacom's shipping container base stations

    Data usage in townships is exploding and Vodacom has developed an innovative solution to meet this demand, writes LEIGH-ANN FOWLE.

    An increase in the availability of low-cost smart devices has sparked dramatic growth in data usage in townships. In Gauteng alone, data volumes are almost doubling year on year. 

    This creates a significant challenge for mobile networks. In order to meet this demand, Vodacom has developed a unique solution which allows mobile base stations to be retrofitted onto the roof of existing shipping container shops. 

    'Our engineers went back to the drawing board and developed an entirely different approach.'

    – Andries Delport, Chief Technology Office

    A unique challenge

    A standard mobile base station takes up a sizeable amount of space and comes at a cost of up to R1.5 million. Townships present a unique challenge because of the limited free space, population density and lack of available infrastructure

    Vodacom’s Chief Technology Officer Andries Delport explains how they overcame these challenges. 'Our engineers went back to the drawing board and developed an entirely different approach.'

    The solution is a repackaged base station that can be rolled out within 3 – 4 weeks (the lead time on a standard base station is typically 12 – 18 months), has a smaller footprint of only nine square meters, and comes in at about half the cost. They are also more energy efficient. 

    Community involvement

    Community participation is a critical part of the success of this model. Vodacom wants to help entrepreneurs in the community to grow. 'The solution isn’t just about mobile coverage. The shops located in containers will typically sell airtime, m-pesa and telephone services,' says Delport. 

    This means shop owners generate an additional income for themselves. Vodacom will also buy all the prepaid electricity that the base station needs directly from the shop owner. 

    Securing the base stations remains an ongoing concern and partnerships with shop owners are going a long way to solve this problem. 

    Testing begins

    At the moment, there are about 2 100 containers around the country. The first base station has gone live in Alexandra township as part of an initial test of five units. The test sites provide mobile coverage over a radius of up to 1.5km and can serve 5 000 subscribers at peak times.