With metal poles and plastic palm trees masquerading as mobile phone base stations, it was about time someone repurposed something new to do the same. At a media event this morning, Vodacom unveiled their plans to make use of a number of old shipping containers, and turn them into mobile signal base stations – specifically for use in townships.

Vodacom explained that a typical base station takes up about 30 square metres, which includes a mast of about 25 meters. This presents a bit of a problem in terms of mobile signal coverage in townships as there is often not enough space to build new base stations. This problem is further compounded by the data explosion from cheaper smartphones that make use of even more data.

But Vodacom has a plan to solve this issue – in the townships there are plenty of small shops made from shipping containers. These containers are often placed in prime areas where a high number of people walk past everyday. The shops often have nothing on their roofs, and this is the new real estate that Vodacom is targeting.

Vodacom’s engineers have designed a “box” that fits on top of the container’s roof and strengthens the mobile signal in the immediate area.

“Our engineers went back to the drawing board and developed an entirely different approach. They repackaged the base station equipment inside a compact steel structure that is then bolted to the roof of existing shipping container shops. This means that new sites can be rolled out quite literally within weeks as opposed to the typical 12-18 month lead time to build new base stations,” Vodacom’s chief technology officer Andries Delport explained.

Delport added that while the new base stations have a smaller footprint than previous stations (about nine square meters), they are also more energy-efficient and cost less than half the amount needed to build a traditional site.

“This solution isn’t just about mobile coverage. The shops located in containers typically sell airtime, m-pesa, and telephone services. With a base station located on their roof, we’ll support the shop with an additional source of income, and they in turn provide us with added site security. It makes us part of the community,” he said.

Five of these rooftop base stations will be placed in Alexandra in an initial test, and one has already been placed down. In terms of mobile signal coverage, the test base station will have a radius of about 1.5km and will be able to connect about 5 000 subscribers during peak times.

Charlie started his professional life as a motoring journalist for a community newspaper in Mpumalanga, Charlie explored different journalistic angles since his entry into the fast-paced world of publishing in 2006. While fostering a passion for the arts, Charlie developed a love for technology – both which allowed him to serve as Entertainment and Technology Editor for an online publication. Charlie has since been heavily involved in consumer technology for various websites and publications. He thoroughly enjoys World War II films and cerebral documentaries; aviation; photography and indie music. Oh yes, and he also has a rather strange obsession with collecting coffee mugs from his travels.