North Korea installs solar panels to bolster underpowered cellular network

Rolling blackouts take towers offline, rendering mobile phones unusable
By Hyemin Son
2022.02.09
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North Korea installs solar panels to bolster underpowered cellular network A North Korean woman talks on her mobile phone as she skates on an ice rink in Pyongyang, North Korea Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2018.
Photo: RFA

North Korea is installing solar panels and batteries on cellular towers to stop rolling power outages from crippling the country’s mobile phone network, sources in the country told RFA.

Electricity is not supplied around the clock in North Korea, especially outside the capital Pyongyang.

North Koreans have grown accustomed to rolling blackouts, but the underpowered towers have made cellphone communication between regions difficult and unreliable.

“Yesterday I dialed the number for an acquaintance living in Hyesan. Instead of connecting, I heard a recorded message saying that the service coverage area had changed,” a resident of the northwestern border city of Sinuiju, across the Yalu River from China, told RFA’s Korean Service.

“This is the message that plays when the cellphone towers are out due to a power outage, and it kept repeating for two hours,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.

Hyesan is a city two provinces to the east of Sinuiju, and the faulty connection can be caused by a malfunctioning tower anywhere in between.

“There are three cellphone towers in Sinuiju, but electricity supply is unstable,” she said. “Mobile communication systems often get paralyzed, and the instances are increasing.

“To combat this problem, authorities have ordered that cellphone towers nationwide must be operated by solar energy stored in batteries. If it works, then power will be constantly supplied the towers, which will normalize mobile communication networks,” she said.

In nearby South Pyongan province’s Songchon county, installation of the solar panels is underway, a postal worker told RFA.

“The relay towers are often paralyzed due to a lack of power supply, so the authorities took measures so that every cell phone tower has solar panels and batteries. They are prioritizing this project because the fees they collect for mobile phone service is down due to a frequently paralyzed mobile network,” said the postal worker, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

He said that many of the towers have been fitted with old solar panels and used batteries that were imported from China years ago. Newer ones are unavailable because trade between the two countries only recently resumed after a two-year suspension due to the coronavirus.

“The solar panel batteries have been used for a long time and they do not charge well, but there are no new batteries to replace them,” he said.

“The authorities are forcing every tower to install large-capacity solar batteries for emergencies … but unless trade is normalized there is no way to import them. Normal phone operations are impossible for now,” the postal worker said.

Using statistics from 2019, the CIA Factbook reported that only 26 percent of North Korea’s population had access to electricity, meaning about 19 million of the country’s 25.6 million had no access at all. Electrification had reached 36 percent of urban areas and only 11 percent of rural areas in 2019.

The Korea Development Bank Future Strategy Research Institute estimated in a 2020 report that 4.5 million North Koreans used cell phones.

Translated by Claire Lee. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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