Participants at the Connecting Rural Communities in Africa meeting in Sierra Leone last week, organized by the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organization (CTO), came up with a variety of suggestions on how to spur broadband access in remote areas of the continent.
Seventy percent of Africa's population lives in rural areas with limited access to broadband service. The three-day CTO forum, in Freetown, focused on issues such as how to spur Internet and broadband use in rural areas, the critical role of the Universal Service Funds and regulatory tools for stimulating rural supply and demand. The forum also looked at ways to measure and understand the socioeconomic impact of rural ICT development.
The forum was set up to allow African-based companies to "gain insight through experience-sharing with overseas experts" and to "closely examine how people in the rural area connect themselves with towns and cities through affordable and efficient means," according to Sierra Leone's National Telecommunications Commission Director of Legal and Licensing Affairs Michalea Mackay, who chaired the opening ceremony.
Technological advancement is not reducing inequality and the difference between countries that have implemented technology infrastructure and those who haven't is getting bigger, according to the CTO's CEO, Tim Unwin. "That is why we are here," Unwin said. "To learn from your examples. We all have challenges. And we all have innovative ways of addressing these challenges."
On the local front, operators in Sierra Leone discussed their business responses to policy imperatives, noting major challenges facing their effort to reach out to rural areas and how they plan to tackle them. While the four panelists cited electricity as a major challenge to their operations, an Airtel official, Gerald Cole, cited high taxes by the government. He said that since every 10 percent increase in telecom penetration results in a 1 percent increase in GDP, it would not be a loss for the government to consider tax optimization.
Meanwhile, Adel Taher, the head of MDIC, the management company that recently took over the operations of Sierratel, insisted that the liberalization of international gateways has not reduced the high cost of international connections.
"Twenty of the 54 African countries are already connected to fiber-optic cables but they are still charging monopoly rates, which make the objective of spreading broadband access to rural areas unachievable," Taher said.
Vendors attending the conference offered alternative technology to come up with cost-effective rural broadband networks. While submarine fiber-optic cables provide key infrastructure for broadband networks in Africa, there are other means to achieve wide access or support available networks, said company officials.
Fiber-speed satellite networks, for example, can provide broadband-grade connectivity to rural communities in Africa, said Daniel Schapiro, the senior consultant at 03b Networks, based in the Netherlands.
The ACE (Africa Coast to Europe) submarine communications cable connecting the west coast of Africa with Europe will soon be operational, he noted, but added that it cannot be the only source of broadband connectivity for the country.
"Our satellite system has ultra-low latency comparable to the speed of the fiber cable," Schapiro said. "We are presently talking with companies and telecom operators and ISPs [Internet service providers] in Sierra Leone and other African countries to introduce our solution that would be launched in the beginning of next year."
Another low-cost solution for connecting rural areas is Wi-Fi-based backhaul technology, promoted by Detecon International of Germany, a consultancy. "We are looking at leveraging research in practice to offer affordable wireless land technology and get this out in developing nations," said Daniel Henkel, a senior consultant at Detecon.
"We are partnering with the Fraunhofer Research Institute of Germany, which developed a wireless land protocol fiber," Henkel said. "They also did what we called a mesh network, the basic technology behind what we are doing wherein we use cheap hardware in which we put software we designed ourselves, to offer affordable broadband networks."
Henkel said his company's wireless product differs from the fiber-optic connectivity sought in many African countries because it doesn't require the laying of cable and is less expensive to install.
Though he noted that the company has done several projects in Africa through its office in Johannesburg, mainly providing wireless products for GSM operators, he gave reasons why many African countries are yet to opt for the Detecon technology.
"Maybe the reliability is not as good as that of the fiber," Henkel said. "Maybe that's why it is not seen as an alternative because many people think in the long term, which is good. But it also takes a long time to implement something like a fiber. We are quick but we are not as future-proof. "
Financing is also a problem, Henkel said. "Even if you have a request for a small amount of money, I think it still takes a long time to actually commit people to give you the money to invest."