|Issue:||Africa and the Middle East 2008|
|Topic:||Powerline communications – connecting rural Africa|
|Organisation:||African Telecommunications Union (ATU)|
Mr. Akossi Akossi is the Secretary General of the African Telecommunications Union (ATU). With his 27 years as a telecommunication and IT professional, and his knowledge of African integration and the public-private partnership issues, Mr Akossi has helped make the ATU a strong and credible institution capable of meeting the needs of Africa’s people and winning the trust of stakeholders and development partners of the telecommunication and IT sectors. Mr Akossi served previously as the Technical adviser to the Minister (1980-1983), Permanent Secretary (1986-1990) of the Ministry of P&T, Director General of Côte d’Ivoire Telecommunications Regulatory Agency (ATCI) (1995-1997), and successfully steered the liberalisation process of the telecommunications sector in Côte d’Ivoire. Mr Akossi, a national of Côte d’Ivoire, holds an engineer’s degree, in Systems and Communications, Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Télécommunications de Paris, and an engineer’s degree, in Computer Science and Management from Ecole Centrale de Lille.
Africa has little existing telecommunications infrastructure in the rural regions where the greatest part of its population is found. Given the limited prospect for a return on the heavy investment needed to bring telecommunications to rural areas, new low-cost, easy to roll-out, technologies are needed to connect these regions. Powerline communications, which use the existing electrical power distribution networks to provide broadband telecommunications, are a cost-effective way to provide both broadband Internet access and voice communications in many rural areas.
The African telecommunication market has strong regional characteristics. The Internet market has just started to emerge. In 2006, less than four per cent of the population had access to the Internet and less than one per cent had broadband access. The lack of broadband is especially critical in rural areas as there is a strong digital divide. Africa has very limited national telecom infrastructures in rural areas where most of the population – 63 per cent in 2006 – resides. In some rural areas, tele-centers and cybercafés play a strong role since they provide the only way residents can connect to the Internet. Mobile telephony is the most widespread technology and often the only one deployed in rural areas. Up to now, only mobile and satellite infrastructures have been available to meet needs, at least partially, of these regions. The cost of rolling out telecommunications infrastructure in remote rural regions has traditionally been prohibitive. Private initiative has been reluctant to invest in rural infrastructure given the difficulty of obtaining a reasonable return on investment. The low population density and the large investment needed means that little if any return on investment can be expected – certainly not enough for a successful business model. Then too, in most of these remote regions demand is largely limited to basic telephony and connectivity for business and governmental administrative requirements. That restricts the potential revenues that could have been realised through a bigger service portfolio. With such limited sources of revenue, traditional networks cannot be implemented cost-effectively. With these market characteristics, new technologies that can be inexpensively implemented are needed to provide rural access in Africa. The requirements are clear: there is no need for very high data rate networks; deployment must be flexible and wireless; and return on investment has to be quick. Micro-cell wireless technologies such as WiFi, WiMesh and WiMAX and PLC (powerline communications) are the technologies that provide the most promise for the region. WiMAX deployment is still constrained both by regulations and high cost, so WiFi mesh networks (WiMesh) and PLC are currently the most appropriate technologies to meet the needs of Africa’s rural populations; they offer viable business models and hybrid infrastructures that can easily be rolled out. Both WiMesh and PLC are compelling technological choices. They combine technological characteristics that meet many of the needs for rural area infrastructure. PLC is a key technology, in use since the late 1990s; it lets service providers transmit broadband using the lines on the electrical power network. The technology has improved significantly in recent years and it is growing in popularity worldwide. PLC infrastructure works in a variety of environments and it can be adapted to a broad range of backhaul network architectures (medium voltage lines, WiMAX, fibre, etc). Utilities, operators and service providers all appreciate having PLC added to the range of viable broadband strategies. PLC is also considered as an alternative to unbundled telecom network facilities for lower tier regions. The latest PLC chipsets, with a raw speed of about 200 Mbps, support real throughput of 50 Mbps and above in practice. Plans are to reach 400 Mbps raw speed by 2009; this will make PLC very competitive and increase the possibility of using PLC for IPTV related services. The constant growth of PLC capacity and speed will provide higher throughput and greater coverage at increasingly lower implementation cost in the coming years. PLC standardisation is another positive trend. The process of reaching an agreement concerning the proposed international PLC standards has lagged for several years, but the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ PLC committee seems to have gotten the discussions back on track. In November 2007, the HomePlug/Panasonic submission was elected, provisionally, by the IEEE committee as the PLC in-home and access international specification. This advance in the standardisation process and the growing maturity of the technology are paving the way for industry unification and greater market growth. Concerning world trends and dynamics, PLC projects are now being developed all over the world, not only in Europe and USA. For example, Asia has announced large projects in China, Thailand and Malaysia, among others and there is growing interest in Africa. PLC technology is showing more and more versatility; in addition to using PLC for local loop access, there is a tendency to deploy it for indoor and in-building deployments. Indoor PLC deployment facilitates networking solutions especially in MDU (multiple dwelling unit) environments and for new applications and services. In-building PLC is also used as last mile technology in conjunction with other emerging technologies such as WIMAX and fibre. In Europe, because of its cost efficiency, in-building PLC is increasingly used to fight the digital divide by providing broadband at lower prices. The ‘Smart Grid’ concept is a growing issue; it should become a key asset for utilities in the coming years. It answers many utility company needs by providing automated control of energy consumption, resulting in dramatic energy savings. Smart grids offer a wide range of applications to manage the power distribution network by metering and monitoring installations. Utility company business models have recently tended towards wholesaling and the building of neutral, open, platforms. That creates opportunities for both established and greenfield telcos to build their own business cases based on using existing PLC networks. The African continent is now showing interest in PLC. There were some ten PLC projects underway there as of October 2007. Utilities are getting increasingly involved in PLC to provide Internet given that there are few phone lines in many regions of rural Africa, that power lines reach, it is an ideal way to meet the connectivity needs of rural populations. A mixture of technologies is needed to connect Africa’s rural areas and PLC easily lends itself to network architectures that use multiple technologies. With its increasing maturity, PLC’s versatility has grown to the point where it is now becoming an important element in the drive to bring Africa the services it needs. In addition to basic broadband, PLC can bring a number of important services, such as VoIP and medium broadband, to rural areas. Since PLC uses the existing energy network, it can be used to implement energy related applications such as monitoring, public lighting, and to support the self-healing mechanisms increasingly used to deal with power outages. PLC networks are not controlled by the incumbent telcos, so the capacity they provide can efficiently foster competition, spur telephony price reduction and provide better quality services. PLC is an innovative technology well adapted to play an important role pushing the development of the African telecommunications market. Utilising the infrastructure of the energy networks, PLC can contribute to the development of African ICT availability and adoption in many ways. Firstly, since PLC can provide telephony as well as Internet access, and as electricity is more prevalent in homes than telecommunications infrastructure, it can serve as a substitute for a traditional telecommunications infrastructure in underserved remote areas. Secondly, PLC offers alternative operators an independent means of connecting end-users without resorting to existing copper network. This will serve to develop infrastructure competition, increase innovation, lower tariffs and, thus, market adoption. In this context it is very likely to be used together with other alternative backhaul platforms such as fixed wireless or satellite broadband. Thirdly, PLC can help connect users in high-rise buildings to the operators’ fixed wireless or fibre networks by using the buildings’ existing electrical wiring instead of deploying new and costly cabling. PLC lets energy utilities manage and operate their energy distribution networks efficiently, so it contributes to developing an economically viable business case for PLC. PLC provides concrete opportunities for African countries to develop their broadband markets, to manage their energy distribution more efficiently, and offer their populations tools for economic and social development. It will, for the first time, connect isolated populations to the rest of the world. Several African countries have introduced PLC-based projects and plan to significantly extend the deployments. Others are now studying the opportunities related to a PLC-based infrastructure. Technical advances, standardisation efforts and maturity of the current third generation technology allow much higher performance, far better cost structure and viable business models. Now, within the framework of the African Telecommunications Union (ATU), where the potential of PLC is recognised, African stakeholders are combining their efforts to deploy it. There is still a great need to address such central issues as regulation, standardisation, business modelling and service design to ensure full exploitation of this platform and help Africa take its place in the Information Society.