It is no secret that Native Americans living on Tribal lands are among the least likely populations in the United States to have access to modern telecommunications and affordable high-speed broadband Internet. The high cost of infrastructure development and low return on investment are the two primary reasons that larger telecommunications companies are reluctant to invest in rural Tribal lands. Isolated rural Tribal communities generally do not have a ‘critical mass’ of customers sufficient to generate enough dollars to warrant investing in the infrastructure necessary to support high-speed broadband and advanced telecommunications networks.
In the past, deploying telecommunications infrastructure in rural, isolated communities required running wires or cables from transmission facilities directly to homes, businesses and other facilities. But because most of these small communities are so sparsely populated, it was usually just too expensive to warrant investment. However, in recent years improvements in the speed, quality, affordability and reliability of wireless technologies made it more cost effective to make advanced telecommunications services available to many rural Tribal communities, homes and businesses.
Rather than using wires or cables, wireless telecommunications networks transmit their signals over the airwaves via towers or transmitters strategically placed throughout the targeted service area. In many remote communities, this requires placing the towers in isolated, hard-to-reach areas that provide the greatest wireless coverage of the community.
However, even though these systems do not require physical cables or wires to transmit their signals to the end-user, the towers must be connected 24/7 to reliable, consistent power sources. This of course presents a significant challenge because the cost of running power lines to remote, hard-to-reach locations can run into the millions of dollars. This challenge represents another barrier that inhibits access to advanced telecommunications networks for many rural, isolated Tribal communities.
Because some of the larger companies may be reluctant to invest millions of dollars in isolated, rural Tribal communities, many Tribes have begun establishing their own telecommunications operations. These Tribally-owned companies build and operate advanced telecommunications networks to serve even their most isolated residents. A number of them have been quite successful in bringing advanced, affordable high-speed broadband Internet to their communities. However, while the Tribal companies are willing to undertake development of wireless telecommunications networks to serve isolated, remote communities, the challenge of powering transmission towers remains a barrier to implementation.
To address this challenge, on-site diesel or propane generators are often used to bring power some remote tower locations. However, this solution presents a number of additional difficulties. First, the generators require a steady supply of fuel, which requires regular transportation of diesel or propane to the site. In addition, diesel or propane powered generators can require extensive maintenance, which can result in significant down times. This can be both an inconvenience and even dangerous, when it results in outages of public safety networks.
Today, thanks to major technological advances, a new option exists to bring power to even the most remote, hard-to-access transmission tower sites—renewable energy. Solar power and wind power are the two primary renewable energy sources used to provide power for remote transmission towers. In fact, a number of Tribes that are located in remote locations with limited communications infrastructure are successfully using renewable energy to power their remote transmission towers. Companies such as Native Link Communications are now designing and implementing self-sustaining highly robust communications sites with Solar and Wind power backed up by generators.
The solar industry has seen remarkable cost reductions over the past 35 years. Production costs have been dramatically reduced and continue to fall, with PV module spot prices decreasing by a full 65 percent since 2001 and 73 percent since 2007. The cost per watt has declined from $1,800.00 per watt to less than $1.00 per watt. Likewise, the efficiency of solar power has increased from 1 watt per square foot to over 30 watts per square foot and the lifespan of today’s solar panels has increased to nearly 20 years.
Wind power has a similar trend of reduced cost and increased efficiency. Wind power cost reductions have been and continue to be driven largely by technology improvements that allow turbines to capture energy from higher hub heights and larger swept areas, and to do so more efficiently.
As a result of the combined advancements of both solar PV and wind power technologies, remote telecommunications sites can in some cases be entirely powered with renewable energy systems. Older installations almost universally required on-site diesel generator backup because the renewable energy systems were either not sufficiently reliable or did not provide enough power to be stand-alone systems.
Remote installations of advanced solar PV and wind power technologies do not require the running of power lines to the remote site, which significantly reduces the overall environmental impact of the installation. The extensive environmental permitting of on-the-grid installations can delay installation anywhere from 90 days to a year or more. These installations can also require time-consuming and costly environmental studies. By using solar PV or wind power to provide electricity to the remote telecommunications sites, Tribes can significantly reduce the time and cost of the environmental permitting process.
And thanks to smaller, less intrusive modern solar PV and wind technologies, site footprints of remote telecommunications sites are becoming smaller and smaller. Greater installation flexibility is a key advantage of the smaller footprint that is being realized today. For example, many of the most optimal locations to place a telecommunications tower (e.g., providing the broadest coverage range) are very small, offering very limited space for tower placement. The smaller footprint of modern solar PV and wind power systems can enable telecommunications towers to be placed on sites that would not have supported a larger installation.
Smaller installations also reduce environmental impact by reducing or eliminating the need to cut down trees or shrubs. Additionally, because modern solar PV and wind-powered telecommunications sites can eliminate the need to provide diesel or propane backup power, eliminating the need to refuel generators and thus removing the possibility of spills and subsequent contamination.
Regardless of whether a Tribe is considering a solar PV or wind-power remote telecommunications tower installation, a suitability study must be conducted. A wind-path study must be conducted in any area where wind power is being considered. Likewise, any solar installation must be suitable for placement of solar PV panels and have access to an adequate amount of sunlight each day. Solar panels must be placed where the panels get the best light which will vary depending on which part of the country the deployment takes place. Sun tracking mounts are available to increase the energy captured by as much as 35%.
Overall, the viable prospect of using solar PV or wind renewable energy systems to power remote telecommunications sites can make advanced telecommunications available to far more Tribal communities than ever before. More important, the systems open the door for Tribes in even the most remote communities to take control and establish their own companies to provide affordable, reliable high-speed broadband and advanced communications options for rural Tribal residents living in small, isolated communities that may be ignored by larger telecommunications companies.