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$40 Solar-Powered Mobile Phone For The Poor

February 19, 2009

Chinese telecom firm ZTE unveiled a low-cost, $40 solar-powered mobile phone on Wednesday, which it hopes will appeal to the world’s poor. 

The new phone, called Coral-200-Solar, will begin selling in June.

The company partnered with network operator Digicel, which will launch the device in Haiti, Samoa and Papua New Guinea.  

“We estimate in the world there are more than two billion people who have limited or no access to electricity,” Wang Yong Zhong, general manager of ZTE mobile handsets, told reporters at the Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona, Spain.

The Coral-200-Solar uses Dutch technology to increase the current from a single 1.2 in. by 2.8 in. mini solar panel, which is located on the back of the phone. Charging the phone for one hour in full sunlight would provide 15 minutes of talk time, ZTE said.  The device can also be charged via a conventional electrical outlet.

“In our lives (in the rich world), an interruption of power is a nuisance … but it is infrequent,” said Digicel CEO Tom Bryant.

“But where we conduct business, the absence of power is a daily activity.”

The solar panel is about a quarter of the total cost of the 40-dollar handset, Bryant said.

Digicel, which is active in the Central American, Caribbean and Pacific regions, currently offers small separate solar-powered chargers with handsets in many developing countries where energy is in short supply, Bryant said.

Gavin Byrne, an analyst at telecom research group Informa, said some African countries have “charging booths”, where people without electricity at home pay to plug their phones in for a few hours.

“There is an opportunity for solar-powered phones in emerging markets,” he told the AFP.

“That there are businesses charging up mobiles shows there is a latent demand for a charging device where there isn’t a regular supply of power.”

Wang said that in addition to Digicel, ZTE is in discussions with several other network operators that are interested in distributing the solar-powered phone.

“More and more emerging markets need solar products, for example the African market,” he said.

The wireless industry seems to have welcomed the potential of solar power, which could extend mobile phone services to millions without reliable power supplies. Indeed, the arrival of solar-powered phones also raises the prospects of other consumer electronic devices with highly efficient solar technology being sold at low cost in emerging markets.

Mobile handset manufacturer Samsung created a buzz the Mobile World Congress event when it unveiled its first solar powered device on Monday. The handset, known as Blue Earth, has a mini solar panel on its back and will begin selling later this year.  However, unlike ZTE’s Coral-200-Solar, it will be expensive, and is targeted at “green”-conscious consumers in wealthier countries.

Intivation, the Amsterdan-based company supplying the technology linking the solar panel to the battery in the Coral-200-Solar, said the new device was “twice as effective” as anything else on the market.  CEO Paul Naastepad said the solar panel works in all light conditions. 

The company is currently working with other manufacturers to license its patented technology, he said.

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