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.

MTN adds credibility to the OpenRAN movement

MTN has announced it will be partnering with Parallel Wireless to deploy 5,000 OpenRAN sites across its network.

The Parallel Wireless OpenRAN solution will allow MTN to deliver 2G, 3G and 4G connectivity simultaneously, targeting areas which are currently unconnected.

“OpenRAN is certainly not new to MTN. Our Group Technology teams concluded field trials in Zambia in 2018, deploying commercial sites from the start of 2019,” said Dirk Karl, Chief Procurement Officer at MTN.

“Our team has steadily been focused on creating viable RAN solutions alongside the traditional deployments of network technology suppliers in order to accelerate the rural expansion in our markets.”

Although OpenRAN has certainly attracted some attention, it is yet to make a significant splash in the telco pond. Emerging from the Telecom Infra Project (TIP), OpenRAN is an initiative to define and build 2G, 3G and 4G RAN solutions based on a general-purpose vendor-neutral hardware and software-defined technology.

Speaking to Telecoms.com on the side-lines of AfricaCom, Christoph Fitih of Parallel Wireless highlighted that the deal provides some much-needed credibility to the OpenRAN movement.

This is the challenge when it comes to OpenRAN. Many telcos understand the value the technology can offer, though telcos are traditional organisations. Most are incredibly risk-adverse, especially the smaller telcos, arguably the ones who will gain the most from OpenRAN. New ideas scare the telco industry.

From Fitih’s perspective, MTN’s confidence in OpenRAN validates the technology. Incorporating OpenRAN into its network should spark an interest in the minds of competitors, offering the movement confidence.

Whether this proves to be the spark which ignites the OpenRAN fire remains to be seen, though a stamp of approval from one of Africa’s most prominent and influential telcos certainly provides some weighty credibility.

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.