Doing less with more, or, fossil fools

I know. That could be about just about anything we humans do with the natural resources at our disposal – except manage the residue, it seems.

But this post is about spectrum usage, and energy. Odd combination. Eager readers of my tireless prose might wonder, since I have already posted here about alternate energy conversion routes, and about spectrum, at length (friends assure me it is entirely too much length, in fact. As Garth Brooks put it, I’ve got friends. On the other hand, maybe I don’t have a lot of readers).

The other evening, in fact, I was over at a friend’s place, and she happened to mention in broad terms where our* refined fossil fuel oils are consumed, in response to my questioning about diesel in cars and trucks (yes, she knows).

The rain forest returns

Typical cell tower installed on building roof

A major consumer of diesel, one that did not even exist before 1994, is mobile switches – cellular switchgear. Despite the fact that the rural rollout is still way behind what it could have been, had it not been for a particularly opprobrious system of licensing and spectrum allocation, these gadgets, seen everywhere in cities and towns, ugly masts festooned with strangely disturbing grey antennae in different shapes and sizes, account for a significant amount of diesel consumption.

*In India, I mean

Of course we all know that 24/7 electricity is an almost unknown phenomenon in India, aside from at a handful of urban conglomerations, like, for instance, Mumbai. Since there isn’t anywhere quite like Mumbai, it may well be that it is the only place where anything other than 24/7 electricity is likely to draw newspaper reports. Still, it hadn’t impinged on my consciousness that the cell-towers need to be well juiced, whether or not the grid power delivers, or else communications, such as they are, will cease.

Now, has this little but important fact come to the attention of anyone else? I mean, by anyone else, the nabobs of the powers-that-be, who dole out licenses and spectrum, whose delays in reallocating spectrum between current users and the proponents of 3G services means that 3G will be an irrelevant technology by the time it finally arrives. Do these worthies think it relevant to nudge cellphone service providers towards more responsible energy-use policies?

Look, if the answer was yes, then this would be a press release, not a blogpost. Wake up.

Here’s a small suggestion. For existing license holders, we need an energy audit: how much of cell-tower energy comes from fossil fuel consumption (total amount and per-tower consumption, measured at the tower, so it must include grid-power drawn from fossil fuel consumption as well)? Then demand an annual improvement as a condition for licensing, and impose financial penalties on failure to maintain continuous improvement, or to file reports on time. Make payment of these penalties a precondition for renewal of spectrum allocation. For new licensees, demand a minimum value right from the word go, based on the overall previous year’s consumption reports across the entire industry.

Wait, you may well think, what about the other users of spectrum, shouldn’t they also be nudged towards lean energy practices?

I say yeah! For sure, anyone using as much spectrum and energy as cellular services should also be made to pay for it. The biggest consumer in this respect is probably the military. In fact, anytime the issue of shortage of scarce spectrum resources comes up, fingers point at the military.

As far as I am concerned, the military pays in ways we can’t even imagine already, although that is not and should not be an excuse for profligate behaviour. Still, there is no great harm in the country understanding what it really costs to protect the state, and also perhaps to demand some kind of proper accounting for it. It would be interesting to learn whether this kind of accounting (not accountability!) has ever been demanded in the past. SnoCats and coffins make for good headlines, but the real money goes elsewhere, which is why arms dealers manage to continue in business long after they have been found engaged in the most knavish deeds. A step must be taken somewhere, and spectrum may be the place to start. It may happen that spectrum usage has actually one of the tiniest budget impacts for the military, in which case it is a good place to check out the quality of an audit, before rolling it out to bigger ticket items.

But I digress (to tip a baseball cap in fond tribute to Tom Lehrer). We should have a good, if not an excellent, communication system all along our coastline. There are four principal users of our coastal waters: commercial goods transporters, industrial fishing vessels, small fishing vessels and the military (including the Coast Guard etc). Perhaps offshore natural resource extraction also plays a big role as far as consumption of spectrum and energy goes, but I would tend to imagine it isn’t very large compared to the others, as a chunk, except in certain specific geographical areas.

The commercial goods people (international shippers) already have a decent comms system in place, mainly using satellites, and so do the military (at least, I hope they have, for I haven’t checked). That leaves the industrial and small fishing vessels. Both use diesel in large amounts, but only the former uses spectrum in any meaningful quantities, relative to the numbers and economic value add.

Which is a real shame, for it is the small fisherfolk whose ordinary lives are conducted in an environment of extraordinary risk, till recently almost completely unaided by any decent organised support system, and very sparingly aided with energy from fossil fuel. They need an easy-to-use, reliable and mission-critical comms system, one that is energy efficient to boot. The last ‘improvement’ anyone needs is to have to spend just to stay in the same place.

I have something in mind to muse about, pertaining to the efficient sharing of spectrum, in this context. I had, in fact, planned to write it now, but this post is probably too long already, so I will cease and desist for the moment.

Watch this space.

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Filed under Accessibility, Blogroll, broadband, Communication, Community, development, energy, Fossil Fuels, Radio, social processes, Wind Power

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