South Africa’s solution to lousy mobile signal: Turn streetlights into cell towers

Number one.
Number one.
Image: Reuters/Mike Hutchings
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Johannesburg is South Africa’s largest city. It is also one of the most crowded and densely populated. As a result, mobile phone signal often suffers from too many people trying to connect to one cell tower. The dense built-up environment doesn’t do phone reception any favors either.

MTN, one of Africa’s largest mobile operators, has an ingenious solution: The company is installing cell towers on streetlights in the crowded west and north and of the city. The first two streetlight-towers went up this week in Bryanston, a wealthy suburb. MTN recently won a three-year contract with City Power, Johannesburg’s electricity supplier, as part of the utility’s push to commercialize its infrastructure. Although MTN has a license to replace any of the 110,000 lampposts in the city, its initial rollout will be small, with just 100 poles planned for installation by Christmas, reports TechCentral, a tech blog. More will follow, depending on the results of the first phase.

The installation of a new cell-enabled streetlight takes about 11 hours, making it a much faster process than building a traditional mobile base station, Eben Albertyn, MTN’s tech boss, told TechCentral. However, the lamppost-towers also have a much smaller operating radius of 400 to 600 meters  (1,300-2000 feet). Traditional towers can, in theory, extend their range over 30 kilometers (18 miles), but in practice tend to be located only a couple of kilometers apart in urban areas. The smaller footprint of MTN’s streetlight means fewer people will be using the same tower, which should allow for fewer dropped calls and faster data connection.

MTN is not the first company to think of using streetlights for other purposes. Quartz wrote in March about Sensity Systems, an American company, which is one of many with ambitious plans to turn the world’s streetlights into sensor-packed, data-gathering mobile and internet towers. MTN’s towers are more singular in their focus. But even without sensors, the internet of streetlights is well on its to becoming reality.