Low-cost rural connectivity for Africa’s majority is not a pipe-dream
The networking and telecommunications infrastructure required to extend reliable and affordable connectivity to rural areas of Africa is available and ready to be deployed – the immediate challenge is for everyone in the tech ecosystem (but especially policy makers) to pull together in the same direction.
Internet connectivity and access to telecommunications services is widely acknowledged to be a fundamental human right, one that continues to be championed by global organisations like the UN.
But in Africa the gap between those who are connected and those who are not is as wide as ever.
Digital transformation can only benefit those who are included and the longer rural communities (which according to technology entrepreneurs at least) is still the vast majority in Africa, remain excluded, the longer it will take for Africa to capitalise on ICT and telecommunications.
Internet advocacy organisation Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) said in its Meaningful Connectivity – Rural Report, that across all nine countries surveyed, approximately only one in ten people have meaningful connectivity.
In urban areas, this increases to one in seven. In rural areas, the ratio drops to one of every twenty.
“In Mozambique and Rwanda, fewer than one in every fifty people in rural areas have meaningful connectivity. This should alarm policymakers because as a share of the world’s rural population, one in four lives within an LDC country: as part of the world’s online population, only one of every twenty users connects from an LDC country. We have the opportunity to learn from our past and build better policies that enable greater meaningful connectivity in rural areas,” A4AI stated.
The need for internet connectivity is becoming clearer every day. It is front-of-mind for companies like Nokia, which has carved out a position in the market as a central player or nucleus that engages with other operators, communication service providers, regulators, enterprises and tower companies, amongst others.
Danial Mausoof, Head of Mobile Networks Sales & Solutioning, Middle East and Africa at Nokia, said there is a strong need for collaboration and partnerships in telecommunications across Africa, which is the central theme of the company’s product pitch to the market: ‘creating technology for the world to act together.”
Mausoof said, “Close to 60% of Africa is all rural, so we’ve got a huge opportunity of connecting people across those rural villages and communities, and that is where the focus is. There are many technology initiatives to do that, so we’re not the only one… there is a social responsibility to connectivity and I think that’s what is very important to what we want to position in Africa and in rural areas.”
Creating tech for the world to act together is certainly a worthwhile objective, but in practice it is going to take a lot of hard work, discipline, commitment and flexibility to ensure that all stakeholders buy into the plan.
One of the biggest obstacles is cost, and specifically the expense associated with deploying infrastructure. Telecommunication services providers, network operators, CSPs and tower companies have struggled in the past to justify the investment in rural areas, citing slow ROI as a major problem.
So while the need to extend connectivity to rural under-serviced areas is acknowledged by companies, the reality is that expense and available funds thwarts efforts to deploy the requisite infrastructure.
Over the past few years, there have been several initiatives launched, but many of these have been haphazard and difficult to sustain.
In late 2020 a lack of funding forced Malawi to halt its Last Mile Rural Connectivity Project to erect 136 towers, while established operators like MTN and Safaricom reiterated the need to focus on rural connectivity to reinforce income.
“One of the biggest components of connectivity - and a key message for us in the industry - is sustainability,” added Mausoof. “We want to make sure that the TCO is lower so they can actually get a better ROI, and that’s not just a good start, that’s a fundamental. Today we are talking about rural connectivity, but really it’s about low-cost rural connectivity.”
And in his breakdown of technology that lowers the cost, Mausoof stresses that in terms of rural Africa, the push is 2G, 3G and 4G infrastructure.
Mausoof said to reduce costs, there are several layers of technology to consider. Firstly, Nokia asserts that there is a baseline radio network product/ solution required that can work across these technologies and provide the required coverage. Power supply and consumption is another area where costs can be brought down.
“The real chunk of it is how you build the power … and that’s where we’re innovating. We’ve got off-grid power solutions, we’re reducing that total consumption that you get by using batteries and using solar and driving that cost level down for the operator.”
“What we’re pushing is off-grid rural connectivity, how we’ve designed the power solutions. So, we’ve got 2G, 3G, and 4G connectivity, and then from the backbone, rather than using satellite or anything, we are using non-LoS. So we have on-line of site equipment and backbone technology… and then on the backbone we are also looking at how we are going to use efficiency across managing the Opex better through battery, solar, off-grid solutions, and then ultimately allowing the operator to manage it through a remote management system, not just the radio part of it, but the off-grid part as well. That allows us to have one comprehensive solution. The fundamental unique driver is the off-grid portion getting together with a highly competitive product for 2G, 3G and 4G, which is complementary to off-grid.”
The networking value proposition is a pan-African one, so Nokia is in business with many operators across the continent. It has recently announced deals in Angola and Ethiopia, and Mausoof said there are approximately 14 5G licences expected to be concluded on the continent in the next two-to-three years.
Nokia intends to keep a close eye on developments between regulators and authorities with regard to 5G licence applications, especially in key target markets like Nigeria, with emerging operators like MAFAB Communication having also secured a 5G licence.
Nokia is working alongside partners like Vodacom and Liquid to enrich the service to customers.
“Rural solutions is one part of a very large portfolio that we’re offering. Why we see rural as important in Africa – we believe this gives the first right of connectivity to people, and then we can of course work with the regulators as the other licenses come into play. We also believe Africa has a massive shift into urbanisation, and the mega-city landscape is going to change. That means the response is to focus on rural solutions, we also need to focus on building that 4G coverage and evolving that with the regulatory conditions for 5G as well,” Mausoof continued.
He predicts that the Universal Services Fund (USF), established as a resource to help regulators and governments with infrastructure capacity building and to expand coverage, will play a larger role going forward as countries in Africa continue to digitalise, automate and prepare for life in 4IR.