March 9, 2008

Wireless Industry Goes Green

The wireless industry is among the latest to consider "going green" to reduce their impact on the environment and potentially cut costs.  

Speaking of "green" cell towers, wireless operators are looking to new energy sources such as wind turbines and solar panels to power cell towers. They are also considering how they might obtain backup power for these towers from hydrogen fuel cells, and looking at geothermal cooling for cooling computer equipment. 

The movement is in its infancy, however. The majority of the approximately 200,000 cell towers in the U.S. are still powered from the conventional electric grid.  And at least for the time being, wireless operators are only experimenting with alternative energy for backup power.  

An average cell tower consumes about four to eight times the power of a typical household, and wireless carriers say power from conventional energy is still less costly than alternative sources. However, they are looking to green power sources for their towers in remote areas that don't face the same aesthetic and zoning limits as those in cities and neighborhoods.

Wireless companies said they haven't yet heard a significant call from subscribers to utilize sustainable technology, according to Jackie McCarthy, director of governmental affairs for PCIA - The Wireless Infrastructure Association.

"I think we're hearing a lot more about dependability in terms of the wireless network," McCarthy told the Associated Press. "I don't think the whole 'green' wireless site development (issue) has really gotten to our infrastructure providers yet."

But the industry says it is imperative they consider environmentally friendly alternative technology, particularly if it is less costly. 

Sprint Nextel Corp. began earnestly exploring alternative energy in 2004, and has since deployed hydrogen fuel cells at many of its 65,000 cell sites.

"It solves a lot of issues for us regarding the traditional use of diesel generators," said Bob Azzi, Sprint Nextel Corp.'s senior vice president of field engineering and operations, in an Associated Press report.

Sprint has also installed a wind turbine at its corporate headquarters, and is trialing geothermal cooling as a replacement for conventionally powered air conditioning in warmer climates. The company said it is also testing mini-turbines fueled with natural gas for backup power in its California properties.

"It has the advantage of being quieter," Azzi said of the mini turbines. "They're more reliable and we think they're more efficient than traditional diesel power generators."

At T-Mobile USA, a subsidiary of Deutsche Telekom AG, Miles Schreiner, director of national operations planning, told Associated Press his company began using a small number of hydrogen fuel cells in the Northeast last year, "mainly to kick the tires and see how it does."

He said the fuel cells cost twice as much as standard batteries and generators, but are reliable and have lower emissions.  He said the company is also performing limited tests with solar and wind-powered systems.

"One advantage to alternative power is you get some kickbacks from states in terms of tax incentives," he said. "We're looking at the viability of the long term. We're a business like any other carrier so the question is, 'Is the trade-up and capital outlay worth the costs?'"

AT&T Inc., the largest wireless network operator in the U.S., said it is working on alternative energy but did not give specifics.  At Verizon Wireless, the No. 2 provider and a joint venture of Verizon Communications Inc. and Britain's Vodafone PLC, company representatives said Verizon is also considering alternative energy.


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