The squabbles around spectrum allocation, auctions and alternative wireless connectivity goes on, but telecoms equipment manufacturer Ericsson believes it has at least part of the solution for connecting more Africans online – power efficient radio devices.

The company launched a new product portfolio for extending mobile networks into rural areas and developing countries today, and the key selling point is a hardware suite that’s smaller, lighter and cost efficient than predecessors. According to the firm’s VP Pieter van der Westhuizen, it’s something local operators have been requesting for a long time.

At the heart of the portfolio is the new Radio 2219, an aluminium transceiver unit that’s about 25% smaller and lighter than those you see at the top of masts today. Weight, it turns out, is an important factor in opening up new bits of spectrum in rural areas: every new frequency added requires another radio for each operator, and the “windload” – the force exerted on a tower by all that equipment in a breeze – soon mounts up.

More importantly, the 2219 uses 30% less power than today’s typical transceivers. That’s either a direct cost-saving or it alleviates more of the extra cost of adding radios to a mast. It also, says Ericsson’s Henrik Linnet, makes using renewables such as solar panels more viable. Linnet says that the company is targetting an overall power draw of between 400-600W per mast.

The Radio 2219 is currently being tested, and will go on sale early next year.

“It’s Ericsson’s first ever developing market radio,” says van der Westhuizen.

The solution touted today pairs the 2219 with Ericsson’s existing 5216 baseband unit. This is capable of communicating in 2G, 3G, 4G and the nascent 5G standards across all available frequencies, which Linnet says is important for operators upgrading existing mast or upgrading old ones.

The 5216 has been used in Australia to demonstrate mobile broadband speeds of up to 1Gbps. Something Linnet says the firm is hoping to repeat at Africacom in Cape Town this November, if conditions are right.

While in some areas potential customers may still be using 2G phones, as smartphone adoption increases the 5216 can be used to “refarm” spectrum: so if demand for voice in the 800MHz range falls off in an area, the 5216 can be switched to use some of that spectrum for data even before voice is turned off.

van der Westhuizen says network operators are looking for that flexibility in order to get the most out of any upgrade investment. He says that the firm also wants to work with operators around the to identify masts that are best suited for upgrading from current 2G/GSM equipment around the continent, by sharing data about what kinds of phones are prevalent in specific catchment areas. If there’s a large number of 3G/4G ready devices, for example, it’s a safe bet that there will be commercial uptake of faster services in that area.

Of course, there’s a slight catch. While it’s claimed that the Radio 2219 and Baseband 5216 will prove cost effective for operators over time, Linnet admits that the upfront cost is likely to be higher than older kit.

Be careful what you wish for, mobile networks.

Adam is the Editorial Director at htxt media. He has been writing about technology for almost two full decades now. In a previous life, he was the editor of PC Format and Digital Camera Shopper in the UK, before going on to work as a freelance journalist for seven years. His work has appeared in or on Stuff, The Guardian, Linux Format, TechRadar, Wired.co.uk, PC Gamer, Green Futures, The Journalist, The Ecologist and The Review. Adam moved to South Africa in 2012 and loves 3D printers, MakerFairs and tech hubs. He hates seafood. None of his friends remember this when cooking.