The Energy-Aware Cell Tower Network

IBM (s IBM) has made a leap into a new market, agreeing to help Indian cell giant Bharti network its 32,000 cell towers together for more efficient energy use. Think of it as a smarter way to link lots of little data centers, on a vast, distributed scale.

Under the deal announced Friday, IBM will build software and support a network of sensors, communications and control devices to help Bharti squeeze power and performance efficiencies from its cell tower network. Sensing and fixing equipment before it breaks turns out to save a lot of energy and money, it turns out.

So does fine-tuning air conditioning. That’s one of the biggest power draws at these towers, which are essentially mini data centers in a concrete pillbox spread throughout the Indian countryside. Adding outdoor temperature data to the system allowed IBM to halve AC power use at these “bunkers” by fine tuning the systems and using outside air when it was cold enough, IBM said in a press release.

IBM also says it can monitor power use at the cell-site’s main grid supply, as well as generators and batteries on hand, and turn that into “actionable intelligence” to inform business decisions. Bharti could use that data to better plan power and fuel purchases or organize maintenance more effectively, for example. IBM is supporting the whole platform on its usual list of enterprise software, such as Tivoli, Maximo and Cognos, along with service support.

IBM and Bharti didn’t go into details on the backup power mix supporting the 32,000 cell towers they’ll be monitoring, but that could be an important new area for development. Backup power is critical for remote cell tower sites, and most use diesel generators today, but fuel cells and flow batteries are also finding an early market in cell tower backup. Sprint (s S) is doing a 250 fuel cell test in the U.S. using a Department of Energy grant. Vodafone (s VOD) spinout P21 is testing mobile telecom backup fuel cells in Europe, and Deeya Energy is shipping its flow batteries to back up cell towers in India.

Renewable power is also coming into the picture. Pike Research predicts 4.5 percent of the world’s cellular base stations will run off of solar and wind by 2014, up from 0.11 percent in 2010. Still, solar-powered cell sites generally cost two to three times more than grid power in many regions, according to this GigaOM Pro report (subscription required).

How big is the market for smart cell towers? It’s hard to predict, but there were more than 260,000 cell towers in the U.S. in 2009, each costing about $250,000 to $400,000 to build, according to IBM. India had 231,573 cell sites, putting it in second place behind a rapidly growing China. Adding expensive sensors to all of those sites might take some time, of course. IBM and Bharti didn’t reveal financial terms for the project or when it was expected to be completed.

IBM and Bharti have been working together for several years on various projects. In September the two inked a telecom services partnership in Africa, and in January extended it to a 10-year agreement that will see IBM attempt to link Bharti’s 16 different African IT environments into a single system — a distributed IT management task on a continental scale.

To read more on greener telecom and data centers and smart grids check out GigaOM Pro (subscription required):

Image courtesy of Yeshwanth Rao via Creative Commons license.