DoT's plans to explore alternate energy sources to run mobile towers in the Northeast follows a recent study by the telecom regulator, which revealed major gaps in telecom coverage in Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Manipur and Meghalaya.
According to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India ( Trai) report, Arunachal Pradesh has the highest coverage gap (55.9 per cent), followed by Meghalaya (38.1 per cent), Mizoram (32.3 per cent) and Manipur (24.3 per cent).
A senior DoT official said plans were afoot to "use solar powered telecom towers" in the remote corners of the Northeast that still remained outside the mobile loop.
'Go green' has been a popular theme in government circles, especially after DoT unveiled stiff green targets for telcos more than two years ago.
The green telecom policy requires mobile operators to reduce diesel consumption and run 50 per cent of their towers in rural areas and 20 per cent in urban areas on hybrid power by next year. And by 2020, will need to run 75 per cent and 33 per cent of their towers in rural and urban zones respectively on hybrid supplies, which have been defined as a mix of grid power and renewable energy based on solar, wind, biomass or fuel cells.
But telco appetite for green energy technologies remains low, given the huge capex required to set up solar energy capacity. As a result, DoT has lately been pressing the finance ministry to provide viability gap funding (VGF) to telecom operators and tower companies to help them meet their green energy targets mandated by the government.
The DoT official, quoted above, conceded that going solar would be expensive for telco as "the cost would be roughly Rs 10 lakh per site".
It also proposes to involve Renewable Energy Service Providing Companies (Rescos) in driving the go-green thrust.
It is a different matter that the Resco model has failed to deliver so far. Last year, tower operators under the Tower And Infrastructure Providers Association (Taipa) banner had floated a request-for-proposal inviting clean energy equipment suppliers to form Rescos that would set up independent clean energy generating stations for selling power exclusively to tower operators or mobile phone companies directly.
Though talks were held with 70-odd applicants, only two companies were finally engaged as Rescos for a pilot involving the greening of some 1100 tower sites.
As a result, barely 1 per cent of India's near 5 lakh telecom towers run on green energy solutions now. Recently, DoT mandated deployment of green energy technologies for powering upcoming mobile networks in naxal hit regions across nine states. Bharat Sanchar Nigam has been mandated to roll out the networks. The near Rs 3560 crore venture would be fully subsidised by the Universal Services Obligation Fund (USOF), an independent DoT arm that finances rural network infrastructure rollouts.