Pan-African initiatives are only way to solve its connectivity conundrum

Connecting the unconnected is an ongoing challenge for anyone in the African telecoms industry, but where do you find the $435 billion to plug the holes?

It might sound like an extraordinary number, but when you consider the size of Africa, 30,37 million km², and the population, 1,216 billion, it starts to look a bit more reasonable. This is a challenge which has been discussed extensively over the last few years, though a viable solution has not been tabled.

This is not to say there is no progress. This week, Liquid Telecom announced it had completed the construction of a new high-capacity fibre link running 2,600-kilometre (km) across the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), while Orange is about to begin work on an international backbone network in West Africa, connecting eight countries. These are promising steps forward, but the monumental scale of the challenge suggests such projects are little more than a drop in the ocean.

With such a significant mountain to climb, new ideas and new approaches need to be considered. Speaking at AfricaCom, Carole Wamuyu Wainaina of Africa50 has called for greater harmonisation between the 54 nations across the continent.

One of the challenges with developing a communications infrastructure to take Africa into the digital era is the moving parts. 54 sovereign states, most of which are not the wealthiest, are moving forward with independent connectivity plans. There is nothing wrong with this, but a common strategy would be significantly more efficient, both in terms of time and money.

This is not necessarily a new idea, Europe relies on the power of many after all, and there are initiatives in place in Africa. Wainaina pointed to some small-scale joint-initiatives to deploy electricity infrastructure as an example, but these are limited in their nature. For success to accelerated, a genuine pan-African approach should be considered. Pooling resources, talent and ideas could realise significant efficiencies.

The last few years have seen an attempt to create some cohesion between the nations, meetings between the ICT Ministers are not uncommon, but this seems to be all they are at the moment; meetings. At some point, the talking will have to stop, and action will have to be taken. Few government officials like to do anything new or innovative, though big challenges require big actions.

The creation of a pan-African deployment plan might be the only way to deploy connectivity infrastructure which spans the width and breadth of the continent, but rhetoric will have to turn into action sooner or later. Politicians like to talk, promise and posture, but that achieves nothing.

Spectrum shortage is killing African digital ambitions

Telcos complaining about government regulation and policies is not unique to the African continent, though they never seem to get along here.

Through the years there have always been complaints from the telcos at AfricaCom. Whether it is import tax making devices unaffordable or policies which don’t attract international investment, the bureaucrats constantly seem to be on the backfoot. This year’s event saw a global pain-point hit the keynote conference agenda; spectrum availability.

This is of course a gripe of almost every telco around the world; there isn’t enough spectrum available to deliver the digital economy which politicians have promised voters. However, when you breakdown the numbers, there are some valid concerns. Looking at the South African landscape demonstrates the point.

  Telco holding
Spectrum band Vodacom MTN Cell C Telkom Rain
900 MHz 22 MHz 22 MHz 22 MHz
1800 MHz 24 MHz 24 MHz 24 MHz 24 MHz 34 MHz
2100 MHz 30 MHz 30 MHz 30 MHz 30 MHz
2300 MHz 68 MHz
2600 MHz 15 MHz
3500 MHz 28 MHz 142 MHz
Total 76 MHz 76 MHz 76 MHz 150 MHz 191 MHz

Speaking during the keynote sessions, MTN CEO Rob Shuter highlighted the South African Government is demanding more from the telcos, without offering more of this valuable asset to deliver. The MTN business has been working with the same spectrum allocation for decades, a situation which cannot continue. More spectrum is needed.

This is one example, though the story is pretty consistent across the continent. The issue is apparent when you compare it to the UK.

  Telco holding
Spectrum band EE Vodafone Three O2
800 MHz 10 MHz 20 MHz 10 MHz 20 MHz
900 MHz 34.8 MHz 34.8 MHz
1500 MHz 20 MHz 20 MHz
1800 MHz 90 MHz 11.6 MHz 30 MHz 11.6 MHz
1900 MHz 10 MHz   5.4 MHz 5 MHz
2100 MHz 40 MHz 29.6 MHz 29.2 MHz 20 MHz
2300 MHz 40 MHz
2600 MHz 70 MHz 45 MHz 55 MHz
3500 MHz 40 MHz 50 MHz 60 MHz 40 MHz
3700 MHz 80 MHz
Total 260 MHz 211 MHz 289.6 MHz 171.4 MHz

Not only is there more spectrum available, it is broadly spread across a range of spectrum bands to address different usecases and challenges. Soon enough another spectrum auction will take place in the 700 MHz and 3600-3800 MHz spectrum bands.

This is of course a very simplistic way to look at the landscape. South Africa is a very unique country, and spectrum is allocated with conditions, such as minority ownership of the telco. There is an on-going conflict between the major telcos and the government regarding the obligations placed on spectrum allocation, but the end result is still the same; a scarcity of an incredibly valuable resource.

There is perhaps a glimmer of hope however. In recent weeks, the government published an ‘Information Memorandum’ outlining plans for additional spectrum to bolster 4G connectivity and pave way for 5G in the future, though attendees at AfricaCom are not exactly enthralled by the situation. For some, this is just more talk in place of action. Confidence in the governments ability to sort out this mess in a timely manner is not particularly high.

This sceptical view is perhaps supported by the 800 MHz spectrum band. Currently being used by broadcasters, there have been promises to clean the airwaves for use in the mobile world, though little of this promise has translated into assistance for the telcos. The frustration continues.

South Africa seems to have an ‘us versus them’ situation currently. Governments and telcos are rarely best of friends elsewhere, but there is a collaborative environment to ensure an effective connectivity landscape. The Shared Rural Network proposal in the UK is an excellent example of bringing together various different parties with compromises being made to achieve a common goal. This collaborative environment does not seem to exist in South Africa.

If South Africa, and African nations in general, are to compete with other regions in the digital economy, or drive digital inclusion across society, the spectrum conundrum needs to be addressed. But looking at the bigger picture, telcos and governments need to reduce the friction and create a more collaborative environment. These are not parties who are ever likely to be the best of friends, but they should at least be able to tolerate each other in the pursuit of a common objective.

Attracting investment to Africa is not the issue, keeping the value is

Europe has been rubbing the White House up the wrong way with the diabolical intention of reforming regulation, and now it appears Africa might be heading the same direction.

Digital regulation and policy are turning into sticky topics nowadays. With the likes of Amazon, Google and Facebook generating almost thinkable profits, while playing hide-and-seek with the taxman, numerous nations are hitting back. New regulatory regimes are being created, much to the irritation of the US, to ensure value is retained in the country it is created and this trend is making its way across to Africa.

“We need to dictate the rules to the technology giants if they want to apply their technology,” said Nanjira Sambuli, Senior Policy Manager at The Web Foundation, at AfricaCom.

Founded by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, The Web Foundation has tasked itself with creating a more evenly distributed digital economy, ensuring the benefits and value of the internet are fairly shared across the world. In turn, Sambuli leads the Web Foundation’s policy advocacy to promote digital equality in access to and use of the web.

Herein lies the issue which is challenging regulators and policy makers in Africa currently; attracting foreign investment dollars to African start-ups and incubators is not necessarily an issue, but retaining the value created certainly is.

Although Africa might not be the most attractive of regions to some multi-national corporations, there is certainly plenty of opportunity. With only a third of the continent connected to the internet, there are some 800 million individuals who are sitting outside the digital society. And with 60% of the population under the age of 24, there are profits to be made once the digital revolution generates more momentum.

During the opening keynote sessions at AfricaCom, MTN Rob Shuter highlighted the next three years could see a surge in the adoption internet adoption across the continent, and in turn, profits will be generated as these new users get sucked into the same digital rabbit holes.

But like Europe, Sambuli highlighted the African governments and regulators are keen to see the value, both societal and financial, retained in the economies which create it. Silicon Valley might dictate the speed of the revolution, but it seems it will not wield the financial freedoms of yesteryear.

That is worth noting, is this is not just a Non-profit organisation posturing for attention. Sitting alongside Sambuli on the panel was Stella Tembisa Ndabeni-Abrahams, the Communications Minister for South Africa. Echoing the statement, Ndabeni-Abrahams suggested new policies were on the horizon to ensure South Africa’s entry role in the global digital economy is on South Africa’s terms.

For the moment, this is nothing more than rhetoric. Bureaucrats around the world have found it is incredibly difficult to hold Big Tech accountable, and the Silicon Valley lawyers are as slippery as ever. This is a bold statement though. Ndabeni-Abrahams and Sambuli both highlighted investments to create immediate value will no-longer appease rule makers. The free-wheeling residents of Silicon Valley might have more regulatory headaches to account for.

Handsets are now the biggest hurdle to adoption in Africa – MTN CEO

Connecting the African continent is always going to be a complicated job, but the availability of handsets is now the biggest challenge according to MTN CEO Rob Schuter.

When most people visit the continent of Africa, they are likely drawn to touristic countries such as Morocco, South Africa or Tunisia, and while some scenes might jar, the picture is misleading. These countries might not be as advanced as those in Europe or North America, but they are not a fair representation of the wider continent either, as Schuter highlighted at AfricaCom 2019.

MTN has roughly 220 million subscribers across the region, though only 87 million are mobile broadband customers. Like traditional banking, only a third of the African continent is connected to the internet. Deployment of connectivity infrastructure might be motoring along, but adoption of these services is not.

There is of course a myriad of reasons for this, but according to Shuter, the affordability of handsets is at the top of the list.

Average monthly earnings in Africa are as little as $100 a month. ARPU is $4, which is perhaps on the steep side, though most entry level smart-feature phones cost $40. This is where it becomes difficult for an individual to take the step into the digital economy; how many individuals can justify 40% of their monthly income to purchase a device?

That said, the situation is not as dire as it used to be. MTN has launched the Smart S device, a hybrid device with the appearance of a feature phone but with some internet services capabilities, Vodacom has launched a number of different alternatives such as the Vibe 4G or the Smart Kicka 3, while Nokia and Alcatel have debuted their own devices as well. But despite the efforts to decrease price, more work needs to be done.

During one of the keynote panel sessions, Shuter’s point was echoed by Schalk Visser, CTO of Cell C, a challenger MNO in South Africa. Visser said there as still a remarkable number of unconnected individuals in the connected areas. Infrastructure has been deployed, addressing one of the key barriers to digital inclusion, though it is clear only a fraction of the problems are being addressed.

But while this is a significant challenge, it should also be noted the African connectivity conundrum is a tapestry of complication.

CHASE is a useful acronym to bear in mind here. Coverage, Handsets, Affordability, Service bundles and Education. The mobile ecosystem cannot exist with infrastructure to provide the coverage, handsets to act as the interface, affordable tariffs, and ecosystem of services and individuals who are educated in the ways and means of the internet economy.

Digital inclusion is of course a significant challenge for anyone based on the African continent, but affordable and reliable handsets are now the top challenge.

Vodafone searches for supply chain rejig through OpenRAN

Vodafone has announced it will introduce OpenRAN technology in various parts of its UK network, as well as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Mozambique.

In what appears to be an effort to break down barriers to work with new vendors, Vodafone will seek to empower the ecosystem through the introduction of commoditised hardware. This is the first trial of the technology in a ‘developed’ market, leaning on trials which have taken place in Turkey and South Africa.

“We are pleased with trials of OpenRAN and are ready to fast track it into Europe as we seek to actively expand our vendor ecosystem,” said Vodafone CEO Nick Read.

“OpenRAN improves the network economics enabling us to reach more people in rural communities and that supports our goal to build digital societies in which no-one is left behind.”

Launched through the Telecom Infra Project (TIP), the OpenRAN initiative aims to build 2G, 3G and 4G RAN solutions based on a general-purpose vendor-neutral hardware and software-defined technology. With vendor-neutral hardware hitting the networks, the aim is to reduce reliance on a small number of vendors, de-couple the hardware and software components of the network more stringently and reduce the vast expenditure made on network infrastructure.

The UK trial will focus on rural locations, perhaps to reduce the exposure of failure. These are also the cell sites which will cost the most and offer the smallest profits. There is a lot to gain here, while the consequence of failure will be limited.

“Encouraging the emergence of new suppliers would give operators greater choice in a far healthier ecosystem,” said Kester Mann of CCS Insight. “Disrupting the status quo could, in particular, make the economics of network deployment stack up in rural areas or hard-to-reach locations, for which roll-out may not currently be viable or cost effective.

“Improving network economics and better monetising infrastructure assets is an important focus of Vodafone CEO Nick Read as the company seeks to achieve ambitious cost-saving targets.”

Like many of the worlds’ telcos, Vodafone is slowing stumbling towards a tricky situation with its supply chain, though many of the issues are outside the control of the company. With Huawei under increasing pressure, the future does look glum for a segment of the ecosystem which is already under-populated.

However, the telcos are not completely blameless in this situation. Investments have been concentrated with the three major vendors in this space (Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia). Through prioritising these companies as primary vendors, challengers have not been given the opportunity to scale and compete. Another complaint levelled at the telcos has been a comprehensive and convoluted procurement process, which has inhibited the ability of smaller players to compete against the status quo.

When the industry is running smoothly, few would have complained with the concentration of investment to a small number of vendors, but there are wrenches being thrown into the works all over the place.

With Huawei potentially facing bans in numerous countries and its supply chain being compromised thanks to the entry onto the US Entity List, a major vendor is under threat. Although Huawei has confirmed it is producing products free of US components, the performance of this equipment is unknown for the moment. Worst-case scenario, the vendor community could become a lot smaller.

Vodafone is one company which does look to be exposed to the Huawei conundrum. UK CTO Scott Petty has said banning Huawei would set the company back two years in its quest for 5G, costing millions as the company would be forced to strip the vendors equipment out of its network. Huawei equipment currently accounts for 32% of the 18,000 base stations around the country, though it has plans to strip Nokia equipment out, with Ericsson taking the rest.

Only working with two suppliers is a precarious situation, though this is compounded when you look at the difficulties Huawei is facing. The introduction of OpenRAN might be considered a bold move, but it is starting to look very necessary to enable access to more vendors.

The trials in the UK, DRC and Mozambique will focus on mobile calls and data services across 2G, 3G and 4G, with 5G possible over OpenRAN in the future. OpenRAN could be debuted elsewhere across Europe dependent on the success of the trials in the UK.

The team have currently identified 100+ rural locations to trial the technology, though this could be expanded in the future. Vodafone has said OpenRAN could reduce network hardware costs by up to a third, but this is dependent on how the technology and supplier ecosystem develops over time. Mavenir, Parallell Wireless and Lime Microsystems are three new suppliers enabled by the trials, though there are a huge number of start-ups who are connected to TIP.

Although this is a small trial for the moment, it is certainly one worth keeping an eye on. Vodafone is in a slightly tricky position when it comes to its supply chain, though should OpenRAN prove to be successful, numerous options could be opened-up. It is a low risk gamble, though the gains of a new supply chain certainly outweigh the consequence of failure.

Huawei allegedly helps African governments spy on dissidents – WSJ

Huawei has worked with African governments to spy on their political opponents, including surveillance and distributing spyware, which has led to arrests and other crackdowns, the Wall Street Journal reports.

In its report (behind paywall) the newspaper highlighted Uganda and Zambia where the authorities have got direct help from Huawei employees to crack down opposition. These measures include surveillance cameras, phone tapping, and cracking encrypted communications with spyware. In the most extreme case, the report says, the pop singer turned politician Bobi Wine’s supposedly secret meeting was busted by the Ugandan police, and his driver was killed. (More details are included in the video clip included at the bottom of this page.)

In Zambia, Huawei employees were reported to have helped the government crack the password protected phones and private Facebook pages of opposition bloggers critical of the president.  The government was then able to track them down and make arrests. Algeria’s ruling party confirmed to the newspaper that they work with Huawei to monitor the opposition though refused to discuss details.

In response, Huawei rejects the allegations:

“We completely reject the Wall Street Journal’s unfounded and inaccurate allegations against Huawei’s business operations in Algeria, Uganda, and Zambia,” said a Huawei spokesperson in a statement sent to Telecoms.com. “Huawei’s code of business conduct prohibits any employees from undertaking any activities that would compromise the data or privacy of our customers or end users, or that would breach any laws.  Huawei prides itself on its compliance with local laws and regulations in all markets where it operates and we will defend our reputation robustly against such baseless allegations.”

Huawei has exported the surveillance system already common in China’s cities to many African countries. The images captured on camera are then processed by Huawei’s facial recognition and AI technologies to identify suspects, sometimes even before any crimes have been committed. Activists also accuse the governments of abusing the technology. The activist Dorothy Mukasa told WSJ that “we’ve seen the (Ugandan) government target opposition more than the criminals.”

Two Ugandan security officers also told WSJ on anonymous basis that Huawei employees directly help them break the encryption of the applications the opponents use for communication, including WhatsApp, by planting spyware on their phones. Huawei denied the allegation in their statement to WSJ that “our internal investigation shows clearly that Huawei and its employees have not been engaged in any of the activities alleged. We have neither the contracts, nor the capabilities, to do so.”

One thing worth noting is that the WSJ does not establish evidence that the alleged activities in Africa were carried out with approval, or even awareness, from Huawei headquarters.

This is not the first time Huawei has found itself in the centre of controversies in Africa. As was reported earlier, the IT and communication system at the African Union headquarters, supplied and installed by Huawei, was sending data every night from Addis Ababa to Shanghai for over four years before it was uncovered by accident. Huawei’s founder later claimed that the data leaking “had nothing to do with Huawei”, though it was not clear whether he was denying that Huawei was aware of it or claiming Huawei was not playing an active role in it.

Here is the video included in the WSJ report:

KaiOS gains Orange support in African drive

Orange has come out in support of KaiOS Technologies, as the telco contributed to the $50 million raised in total during its Series B funding round led by Cathay Innovation.

The cash itself will be used to fuel expansion of the feature phone operating system into new markets, introducing new features and further expanding the KaiOS developer community. To date, there are currently more than 100 million devices running on KaiOS, with a footprint in 100 countries.

“Our mission is to open up new possibilities for individuals, organizations, and society by bringing mobile connectivity to the billions of people without internet in emerging markets, as well as providing those in established markets with an alternative to smartphones,” said Sebastien Codeville, CEO of KaiOS Technologies.

Aside from fuelling an alternative to Google’s Android OS, the partnership between is also geared towards improving accessibility from a device perspective.

“Today the two main barriers to internet access are the lack of infrastructure, for which Orange is investing one billion euros per year, and the cost of the device,” said Alioune Ndiaye, CEO Orange Middle East & Africa.

“As part of our effort to overcome this second barrier, I am very pleased to have this opportunity to develop our partnership with Kai through a direct investment. Providing our customers with access to affordable devices is a crucial step in our ambition to democratise access to the Internet in Africa.”

During Mobile World Congress this year, Kai and Orange launched Sanza, a smart feature phone which incorporated voice-recognition, extended battery life and popular apps as the main features. However, most importantly, the device is sold for as little as $20.

As Ndiaye points out above, accessibility in terms of infrastructure and devices is an issue across the African continent fuelling the ever-expanding digital divide. Africa is a profitable region for Orange, but to grow these profits the telco will have to ensure the internet is accessible to the millions of people who aren’t surfing the digital highways today.

Ericsson loses another senior exec

Ericsson lifer Rafiah Ibrahim, currently its Head of Market Area Middle East & Africa, is calling it a day after 23 years at the company.

To be precise Ibrahim is going to step down from her current position, which she has held for a couple of years, at the end of August and assume the new role of ‘Advisor to the CEO’. But since all precedent under the current CEO Börje Ekholm is that ‘Advisor’ is just a euphemism for ‘gardening leave’, we’d be surprised if Ibrahim was still with the company in 2020.

“Rafiah has been a very important leader in our sales and delivery organization,” said Ekholm. “In her latest assignment she successfully led the merger of two important markets, Middle East & Africa, increasing customer value and securing scale and efficiency as well as implementing a robust operational structure. In addition, Rafiah has built strong customer relationships across the region not least visible in the recently announced 5G contracts. Rafiah has been a valued member of the Executive Team and I look forward to continuing to work with her in her new role.”

The workload of Ericsson’s executive recruitment team is starting to mount up. We still don’t know who is going to replace Helena Norrman to head up the marketing and there seems to have been a steady trickle of senior departures since Ekholm took over. No doubt this is all part of the grand plan, which seems to be going OK, but it does make you wonder about morale at the top table and we must assume Ibrahim was still happy with everything when this corporate vid was published towards the end of last year.