28 Jul 2014

OffComm News talks Slumming IT in Africa

Nic Rudnick, CEO, Liquid Telecom 
which has built the largest single fibre network in Africa.
In January 2014, OffComm News visited the Mathare slum, outside the city of Nairobi, Kenya. Mathare is one of the country’s oldest slums with a population of 180,000. Not only does it have its own football team, it’s a pretty well connected sprawl of dwellings. But how is that connectivity managed and who’s enabling this culture? We caught up with Nic Rudnick at Liquid Telecom to get his take on enabling IT in Africa.

What are the challenges with providing broadband outside the main cities in Africa? 

In Africa, about 700 million people out of about 1 billion live outside the urban areas. The dispersion of the population is such that the terrestrial telecommunication infrastructure is, today, only able to get close enough (about 25km) to about 480 million people.

The economics of telecommunication services are based on density of population around focal points (such as a town centre), except for satellite services. This means that a mobile operator will find it extremely difficult to finance a new base station in an area (relatively small around the new site) where an insufficient number of people dwell or are able to reach daily.

Moreover, densely populated town centres that are too far away from the nearest telecommunication node (another base station or a fibre optic cable node) may not be serviced as new backhaul to connect this new node could be uneconomical.

Finally, the population that lives too far (e.g. over 1km) from a focal point, assuming they cannot afford satellite service, may find that the service they receive is of poor quality, due to the weaker wireless signal in their area.

Universal service and access funds have been designed to remedy some of the economic issue. However local governments are still facing great difficulty to make an efficient and effective use of these funds for IT in Africa.
The migration of analogue TV signal to digital will free spectrum in the sub-800GHz bands. The use of this spectrum extends the area around focal points where the signal is good enough for populations to receive a broadband service. However this transition is slow and complicated and the efficient attribution of freed spectrum to operators is another difficult task for telecommunication regulators.

Liquid Telecom will continue to invest in long-haul and cross-border fibre optic infrastructure, as well as WiMAX, LTE and satellite technologies, to help all players in the industry to service the next 500 million African people that live too far away from the nearest fibre node.

With fibre creeping into inland Africa, is satellite on the way out?

Fibre optic networks are being built, for example by pan-African backbone network operator Liquid Telecom, to bring broadband services to as many people in Africa as possible. However it is likely that some areas, given the size of the African continent and the dispersion of the population in rural areas, will remain, for a long time, far away from Liquid Telecom’s fibre infrastructure. Here satellite can fill the gaps. Also satellite continues to play an important role in providing a backup solution.