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Why micro networks can revolutionise connectivity in rural Africa

Micky Watkins, CEO of ICT and telecommunications services provider World Mobile.
Micky Watkins, CEO of ICT and telecommunications services provider World Mobile.

Even though Africa’s telecommunications has matured, there are still people who are not being served by the big telcos because, as Micky Watkins, CEO of ICT and telecommunications services provider World Mobile puts it, these people “are not considered profitable by the big boys.”

“In Tanzania for example, 48 percent of the country is offline, without access to the internet,” says Watkins. “It is a massive opportunity. The people in the rural areas are hungry for the internet. That is the reason why the company is targeting these users first.”

Watkins explains that the traditional way of setting up network infrastructure can be costly, exacerbated by the need to rent towers and lay expensive fibre.

“That approach is good for half the world. The other half is being left offline,” he states.

Technologies such as VoIP calls have not taken off in Africa as expected and it is due to the cost and access to the internet in most parts of the continent.

However, Watkins believes these are the low-cost technologies ignored by the major players that could revolutionise connectivity for under-served communities.

“We pick up the fibre the same as any mobile network does, but that’s where the similarities end,” he explains. “We use an alternative spectrum, like Wi-Fi, to carry the signal as far as we possibly can.”

Lowering the cost of connectivity through the sharing economy

Watkins continues: “You take a typical tower of a mobile operator and it takes US$ 80,000 to set up and that will cover approximately 2,000 people across ten to twelve villages.”

Most towers are going to need electricity to power them and this poses a challenge in rural areas.

The company’s cost to cover a village of around 200 people is US$5,000 and this ensures that the cost of communication and internet access is achievable to the small-scale rural communities.

“Suddenly for US$5,000 you have transformed an entire village,” Watkins quips. He added that the air node infrastructure is funded through the company’s World Mobile Token, where communities can buy into the token to purchase their units.

According to Watkins, the first pilot project for the company was conducted in a village in Zanzibar, Tanzania and within a short time, local fishermen were already exporting crabs to China.

The CEO adds that the US$5,000 cost can be recovered in one-and-a-half years and its replaceable parts, such as the panels and batteries, can last for up to ten years.

Air Node offering

World Mobile has developed Air Node, a solar powered single unit infrastructure designed to deliver strong internet connection via fibre to areas where power supply is a challenge.

According to a white paper released by the company, “Each user that connects to the network first connects through an Air Node to access the network. This is done by the Air Node passing the user authentication details to the Earth Nodes (the containers of the core logic of the World Mobile Chain system) using the Internode API.”

World Mobile works with public blockchain platform Cardano to deliver credible digital identities.

Watkins adds that the Air Node infrastructure is funded through the company’s World Mobile Token, where communities can buy into the token to purchase their units.

The Air Nodes serve as mobile charging units, can be connected through a fibre network to offer lighting for extra security and to help extend business hours.

Communities can then communicate through VoIP services without the need for GSM network infrastructure or a SIM card.

The company is now looking to expand its offering to other regions of the world facing the same issues of lack of connectivity. All it takes for them is to receive a license from the various country regulators and form partnerships within communities to see the roll-out of micro-networks. 

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