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Network Sharing Key to Connecting the Unconnected

Network Sharing Key to Connecting the Unconnected

The dominant subject at this week’s AfricaCom was, as it has been many times before, connecting the millions of Africans who still have no access to any kind of network.

Multiple speeches and panels were devoted to the subject, with ministers from Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe sharing the policies of their Governments at a seminar hosted by Huawei.

South Africa’s Minister of Telecoms and Postal Services Dr Siyabonga Cwele made it clear that his government’s IT policy was aimed squarely at facilitating digital transformation across the country to overcome inequality.

He noted that the country’s e-government and ICT strategies had been finalised last week ahead of their reveal this week. He added that the digital strategy would be agreed upon later this month.

Meanwhile, African Telecoms Union Secretary General Abdoulkarim Soumaila emphasised that “all people must be able to access the internet to enjoy a better quality of life…governments have a responsibility to ensure that internet access is available to all.”

Soumaila noted that the challenges in building rural networks continue to be regulatory regimes, economic disparity between urban and rural, and a lack of electricity. To this end, he recommended that energy ministers should be included in ICT policy making.

The GSMA’s Head of SSA operations Akinwale Goodluck drew a round of applause from the audience when he declared that “the best time to connect everyone in Africa is yesterday. The next best time is today, and the next best is tomorrow.”

He emphasised that connectivity is now a safety and security issue and that governments need to look at issues around taxation to address affordability issues and encourage investment.

Namibia’s ICT Minister, the Honourable Tjekero Tweya, outlined her government’s Vision 2030 strategy and said that while today more than 70% of Namibians are connected to a mobile network, very few enjoy mobile broadband as it is prohibitively expensive.

Explaining that MTC Namibia had been rebranded to Make The Connection, she also added that her government’s priority was to help operators become profitable without being overtaxed, noting that they would be encouraged through their own successes to pay their taxes.

She noted that regulations for infrastructure sharing mean that players of all sizes can share infrastructure, preventing one single operator from becoming too dominant.

The idea that infrastructure sharing should be encouraged was echoed by Zimbabwe’s Minister of ICT and Courier Services, The Hon Supa Mandiwanziram, who claimed: “There is absolutely no reason why you should go to top of a mountain and find three towers, three diesel gensets and three security guards.”

However, he added that it has proven a challenge to convince operators of the advantages of sharing infrastructure as they want to own their own. Nonetheless, the government strongly believes that sharing is now global best practice and has implemented regulations to encourage it.

Meanwhile, World Telecom Labs (WTL) issued its annual survey about rural telephony in Africa. WTL’s surveys provide the latest insight and opinions from operators, ISPs, Governments and vendors building networks across rural Africa.

The survey’s findings were mixed, revealing an air of cynicism amongst industry stakeholders.  In answer to the question ‘Which African operators are really trying to build networks in rural areas?’ 33% of respondents said that no operators were really trying whilst 40% said MTN was the most proactive.

However, there is a clear push towards commercially sustainable networks in the rural telephony space, with 94% saying that every element of a rural network could and should be shared – and that network sharing, spectrum sharing and neutral wholesale players all offer a way to spread the CAPEX costs of rural networks.

The question ‘What do you think Governments in Africa should do to speed up the rollout of rural networks?’ offered several options as potential answers, and responses were split across these, with the following percentages of respondents answering that governments should:

  • Legislate, giving operators targets: 10%
  • Establish policies to allow all types of infrastructure sharing: 10%
  • Allow the creation of dedicated MVNOs for rural service: 10%
  • Ensure that roaming agreements in rural areas are in place: 16%
  • Collaborate with local municipalities to support and facilitate the deployment of shared infrastructure: 9%
  • Subsidise the backhaul infrastructure: 12%
  • Reduce the industry-specific supply tax rate: 10%
  • Build open access networks: 11%
  • Offer fair and non-discriminatory access to public infrastructure: 11%
  • Other: 1%

Food for thought for all ministers at AfricaCom this week…