|Africa and the Middle East 2007
|ëUpwardly mobileí networks
|Vice President of Sales, Africa
|Harris Stratex Networks
Joseph Joseph is Vice President of Sales, Africa, for Harris Stratex Networks. A 25-year company veteran, Mr Joseph was formerly the Head of Automation at BARCO in Iran. Mr Joseph has a Bachelor of Science degree from Tabriz University and a Masters of Electrical Engineering from Old Dominion University.
The contribution that even basic telephone services bring to the economy – to GDP growth – is well documented. Although governments in Africa are aware of this need for telecommunications, the cost and complexity of stringing copper or fibre networks has hindered the universalisation of services. Since mobile telephony depends upon backhaul connections to the main network, operators are turning to microwave networks, which greatly reduce both right-of-way and installation costs, to expand their networks into Africaís vast rural regions.
Across the African continent, communications technologies are having a fundamental impact on peopleís lives. They disseminate information for health and education, they make businesses more efficient and enable remote families and friends to remain in contact. The deployment of communications networks across vast, rural regions is not without its problems and challenges, but the empirical and anecdotal evidence of their positive impact is compelling. In 2004, Vodafone commissioned four studies of the socio-economic impact of mobile phones in Africa. The studies found that mobiles can have a significant impact on economic growth and quality of life. While those in Western countries may treat a mobile phone as a necessity for business, in developing nations the impact that access to mobile communications can have is substantial and measurable in terms of GDP. Studies show that, between 1996 and 2003, a developing country with an extra ten phones per 100 people would have had GDP growth 0.59 per cent higher than an otherwise identical country. Economic advantages The value of a mobile phone to a business or individual is particularly high in developing nations because other forms of communication, such as postal systems, roads and fixed-line phones, are often poor. Sixty-two per cent of small businesses surveyed in South Africa said they had increased profits as a result of mobile phones, in spite of increased call costs. The reasons for this are many. In 1997, a study of rural businesses in Botswana and Zimbabwe (Kayani and Diamond), found that access to a telephone was a critical factor in the success or failure of the enterprise. The ITU claims that ëinformation povertyí is a major cause of low rural incomes. Safaricom in Kenya has demonstrated this with a programme to enable farmers to keep track of market prices for their goods, improving price transparency and making the farmers less reliant on middlemen. Social benefits The social benefits of mobile communications are also well documented. Mobile phones are often treated as a community amenity. Most mobile owners surveyed in South Africa say they allow family members to use their handset for free and a third do the same for friends. Once communities have access to the technology, it can be used to take advantage of government and NGO, non-governmental organisation, programmes in a variety of beneficial ways. In Nigeria, Frontline SMS Software was used recently to monitor the elections. Over the course of the two-day elections, the monitors received some 11,000 messages. In Uganda, mobile phones have been combined with radio broadcasts to educate (mainly) women farmers and provide them with agricultural information in order to improve their productivity. In Kenya, mobile phones have been used to report land grabbing, especially from women who have been widowed or who have been ostracised because of HIV/Aids. Challenges to deployment For all these reasons, the deployment of nationwide communications networks in Africa is fundamental to the development of the countries of that continent. Unfortunately, less developed countries provide a less than ideal environment for rolling out new networks. The copper line networks that form the basis of most telecommunications services in developed countries were never deployed on a large scale in Africa, as it was not economically viable or practical to do so due to security and land access issues. So today, each service provider must roll out their own backhaul networks to carry data from the base stations back to the main network. This presents challenges. From a technical standpoint, there are issues of terrain, distance and power. With so much of the continent rural, low population densities make it difficult to justify investment in long stretches of fibre. The terrain encompassing thick jungle, harsh deserts and hard-baked ground often makes fibre deployment difficult, even where bandwidth demand would suggest it is the right solution. Even where terrain is not a problem, the same land access issues that prevented the deployment of copper remain difficult to overcome. In certain areas, land is divided in to small parcels, each owned and controlled by different groups, tribes, families and individuals. Negotiating passage for a trench to carry fibre can take months or even years. The wireless solution As a result, most of Africaís service providers have turned to microwave as their transport medium of choice. Microwave provides a lower cost entry point for start up and emerging operators, enabling them to grow their networks as their subscriber base increases. Microwave links are more cost effective to deploy because they are situated on discrete, little noticed, high elevation sites; this also eliminates the obvious right-of-way issues and the need to bury fibre in the ground. Further, and this is also essential in Africa, microwave has significant advantage in terms of set-up times when rolling out service to customers; it can be set up much more rapidly and at much lower cost to the operator than any other type of network. It is no wonder then that microwave is so popular in Africa and has been so heavily involved in the development of the regionís telecommunications industry. Engineers have to overcome challenges of terrain and security on a regular basis, and this has led to some interesting anecdotes. Only recently an engineer had to sail a microwave radio system down a river to its new location in a small canoe. Recently engineers have been involved in extending Celtelís access network to more remote parts of the Nigeria. Celtel is using the network, in part, to launch mobile payphones that can provide phone services to new communities that could never be reached before as part of a national campaign to improve access to telecommunications. The price of access Despite the campaigns to extend connectivity throughout the region, teledensity in Africa, at around 20 per cent, remains low. One of the major problems is financial. Outside of the major metro hubs, population densities are often low, so that a high investment is needed to extend the network into rural areas with potentially small returns. If an operator is willing to extend their network in these areas, they must either be subsidised or charged higher prices in order to earn a return on their investment. Subsidies are generally hard to get from international banks, so some regional experts such as Khalik Aburizik of the ITU recommend differential charging, with higher termination charges for regional users. Though this might disadvantage these users in the short term, they would at least receive access to the service. The assumption is that, over time, the available revenues would draw competition and prices would fall. Lower call costs and more flexible pricing models will also help to overcome one of the chief economic factors restricting growth: low per capita income. Alongside programmes such as Celtelís mobile GSM payphone, some operators are looking at lower value pre-pay top-up cards to help people to overcome credit barriers. Government policy has also had an impact – mobile phone use is higher in countries with liberalised telecommunications markets. Future prospects As mobile phone use increases over time, the usage profile of mobile networks in Africa is also expected to change. Though today voice over GSM networks predominates, by 2012 the growth of GPRS and EDGE sites will outpace basic GSM site growth by 5:1. With EDGE, GSM operators can begin to offer attractive, cost-effective data applications and content, maximising their existing investment in GSM infrastructure. Though mobile subscriber densities are low, they remain an order of magnitude greater than those subscribing to Internet services. This suggests the possibility of a second boom in mobile services as the operators evolve their business models to include broadband services on top of their mobile portfolios. The prospects for text-based service, however, are tempered by low literacy rates and the wide variety of indigenous languages. Mobile phone usage has clear social and economic benefits for the countries and individuals of Africa. Though it remains one of the fastest-growing markets in the world, there are clear barriers to its continued growth. In the short term, problems of pricing and investment in rural services need to be overcome. In the longer term, there will be a barrier to continued growth once the saturation levels currently seen in more developed countries become the norm. Significant education and innovation will be required before text-based Internet-type services can be widely used and begin to drive serious revenues. Nevertheless, the prospects for what these services can bring in terms of benefits to health, education and democracy are incredible.