All-Solar Phone Connects The Off-Grid World

At last, the solar powered phone is here – but it’s not a green thing, it’s a basic social necessity, say the developers


Handset maker ZTE has launched a low-cost solar phone which can be used without any mains electricity at all, thanks to a claimed solar cell breakthrough which could power other devices.

The Coral-200-Solar has a single solar panel on a specially-designed back, but is otherwise a customised version of ZTE’s Coral 200, a leading ultra-low-cost phone designed for emerging markets. ZTE built it for Digicel, an operator active in regions such as the South Pacific and the Caribbean, where many countries are rich in solar energy but have poor electricity grids.

“We have 7.5 million users, and one third of them do not have reliable power,” said Thomas Bryant, vice president of global distribution at Digicel. In some countries, such as Haiti, there are even more potential users that have no power at all. “In Haiti, fishermen can sell their catch, and people off the grid can get medical attention with this phone.”

Ultra-low cost handsets (ULCHs) make up a segment of the market which is still growing fast, according to Wu Sa, director of ZTE in Western Europe: ZTE shipped ten million phones worldwide in the first quarter of 2009 and reported 30 percent growth over the same period last year. These phones do not need many features, he said, and the Coral 200, sold round the world by Vodafone, has no Bluetooth, and no media player. The only “luxury” is an FM radio – and that might be the first radio a user has.

Green phones – the lofty goal that misses the point

The mobile industry has been committing to making greener phones for some time, but this has been a “high and mighty goal” till now, according to Bryant, and solar-powered phones have not been seen as a way to reduce overall energy consumption – as the energy costs in manufacturing usually outweigh any savings in the lifetime of the phone, and solar charging is usually only a supplement to the mains.

With this phone, the green issue is tangential, said Bryant: the issue is just making a phone that works for his market. At least three solar-powered phones were announced at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in February, and the Coral 200 is in the lead in implementation, he said.

Samsung announced a “Blue Earth” touchscreen phone, and has delivered a $60 dual-charging Solar Guru E1107 phone in India, which claims to provide five to ten minutes talk time from one hour in the sun. Meanwhile, LG announced a solar-powered clamshell.

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