|Topic:||Skilling up for mobile broadband roll out across Africa and the Middle East the face of adversity|
Lee Wilsher is the Managing Director of Glotel. Mr Wilsher joined Glotel in July 2010, bringing with him over 19 years experience in the permanent and contractor recruitment for telecommunications and IT markets.
After being Director at Excel Resources Ltd for over four years, Mr Wilsher took the roles of European Sales Manager at Lorien, then Business Development Manager at Eurobase and, subsequently, Group Sales Director at KPC. Mr Wilsher then moved into the telecoms recruitment industry, becoming Regional Sales Director of the Europe arm of RP International. Following this, he became Director of the SAP (systems, applications and products) practice at IT recruiters Square One.
More recently, Mr Wilsher took on the role of Interim Managing Director at professional staffing organisation Longbridge. Following the success in this role, he went on to become Managing Director of Glotel. Glotel is a telecommunications recruitment services business that supplies contract and permanent telecoms professionals to customers in over 100 countries.
The demand for skilled personnel to support mobile broadband rollout is ramping up in this region. Unlike countries in the Middle East, in Africa this is a step change with little legacy to migrate. However there are many hurdles: Local communities need to learn that the value of connectivity is higher than the metal price of dismantled masts and cables; Lower operation costs of mobile base stations is achieved with renewable solar power; Governments need to trust openness instead of barring citizens from the 3G/4G easy access to the Internet. Recent unrest in the Middle East caused sudden evacuation of skilled labour and halted progress. However, it is possible to protect expatriate contractors even under ongoing conflict, as in Iraq and the Congo. Where these issues are overcome and large investment is made available, as in Ethiopia, African countries can look forward to rapid economic growth indeed.
As rapid, reliable mobile broadband networks are rolled out across Africa and the Middle East, the national economies in these regions will expand beyond recognition. With an effective wireless infrastructure underpinning economic development, some countries in Africa and the Middle East could emerge as leading players on the world economic stage.
However, the implementation of mobile broadband technology in these regions is not without its challenges. Countries in Africa and the Middle East are often characterised as areas where economic development is blighted by sporadic civic and political unrest. A plethora of geopolitical, economic and environmental factors are already creating hurdles that must be overcome before the installation of mobile broadband can take place.
The demand for skills
Countries in the south of Africa are currently experiencing the most pronounced growth in terms of development of mobile technology. Telecoms professionals are in high demand in South Africa, Malawi, Namibia and Kenya as the national governments scramble to install the latest technology using skilled personnel from Europe and further afield.
People with proven experience in Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (UMTS), Long Term Evolution (LTE) rollout and network support engineering skills are currently sought after across the Middle East and Africa, as this knowledge will help speed up enhancing existing networks. Engineers who specialise in mobile technologies are increasingly high on the recruitment agenda.
On the whole, local skills in technical areas are lacking in these regions, so expatriate talent is imported on a contract basis. Once placed in roles in these countries, contractors use their expertise to both install the latest technology and to train the local workforce who will continue progress and maintenance long after the contractors leave.
Benefits of the latest technology
Where telecoms infrastructure in Western markets has been developed gradually over many years, relying on copper networks to transport information across the region, the majority of governments in Africa are skipping this step and installing wireless technology from the outset. For many countries, this will mark a swift change, from slow and unreliable connectivity to high speed and cheap mobile services associated with 3G and 4G – something that European markets are still working towards.
Remote rural villages in African countries will benefit from access to a reliable internet connection at an affordable rate. Already the social advantages of this are evident. In Egypt, government organisations have worked with private telecoms providers to create a pilot telemedicine program. Premised on 3G technology, this program enables doctors to take images of skin conditions using their mobile phone. The image is then sent to a dermatological expert anywhere in the world, where it is diagnosed, facilitating a faster treatment response for the patient . Similarly, in Kenya, an operator is currently introducing an SMS voice service, to enable disabled phone users to convey their messages wirelessly without typing . Such cutting edge services are enabled by moving directly to wireless communication instead of wired, and by ensuring fast and reliable mobile internet connection.
Different approach in different countries
In the majority of countries in this region, the original telecommunications infrastructure was built on copper networks, akin to that in Europe. In order to transfer all communication to mobile packet-based IP (internet protocol) communication, which will allow the full potential of 3G and 4G technology to be realised, existing copper networks in the Middle East must be upgraded.
The gradual improvement in communication technology in the Middle East contrasts with Africa’s sudden step change. Africa moves towards the latest technology, without much legacy to migrate. This makes it easier and cheaper to install. The Middle East has a more established economic infrastructure on which telecommunication networks have been built, providing stability and on-going reliable investment in the technical evolution. However, updating existing infrastructure can be costly, particularly transforming the aging copper networks by modern fibre optic cables, which requires specialist technical expertise to be brought into the country.
By contrast, governments and operators in Africa are learning from the latest trends towards mobility in Western markets. They are able to skip a generation of technology since there is little infrastructure in situ. As other regions are migrating slowly to mobile broadband, Africa is moving to it directly.
However, not all countries have a unified approach to technology. Where governments in Africa have opted to install cables to enhance the nation’s connectivity, there are issues associated with affordability and reliability. In 2009, the East African Marine System coordinated the installation of a high speed underground cable to connect East Africa with the rest of the world. Internet still proved to be too expensive for most Kenyans, illustrating the need for more investment to create a truly modern, inclusive telecoms infrastructure . Cost is the largest constraint and yet also the main driver in these regions.
Towards a sustainable future
Where investment in Africa and the Middle East is focussed on mobile broadband development, operators must also achieve the ‘sustainability’ goals, and be mindful of the environment. As operators look to cut costs of installing and maintaining base transceiver (BTS) towers, renewable power is increasingly used. Solar panels or alternative renewable fuels are installed at many BTS towers. This facilitates much lower cost of wireless connection than the traditional diesel generators.
The mobile broadband rollout is therefore serving to encourage operators to both save money and ‘go green’. However, this could be considered an idealistic approach to deployment of mobile technology. The reality is much more fragmented and operators have to overcome a number of hurdles to connect the most remote areas to the national telecommunications infrastructure whilst also reducing operating costs of sites.
Widespread misunderstanding of the benefits of mobile technology is a key challenge to broadband roll out in rural areas. In Africa in particular, communities in rural areas have been known to deconstruct BTS towers, seeing the monetary value in the metal as more important than the mobile signal the tower provides. Operators and governments must take responsibility for educating local communities on the benefits of the mobile broadband. Currently, training the local workforce is high on the agenda, but community support for developments is vital if progress is to be made.
With effective communication, local level opposition to mobile broadband can certainly be allayed. National scale hurdles, however, are harder to overcome within countries in both Africa and the Middle East. Some regimes are already prohibiting the full potential of upgrading GSM to 3G networks from being realised. One prominent example of this is the widely reported conflict between Dubai and Research in Motion, which is potentially hampering smart phone deployment in the country.
For other regimes, enhanced 3G technology is actually enabling governments to track their population’s internet usage on their smart phones while blocking certain interactive websites such as Skype or social media sites. In this context, the power of mobile broadband is being used to further control the nation, rather than enhance connectivity to the rest of the world.
Government opposition to mobile broadband presents a significant challenge to the installation of the technology. In recent months escalating political and civil unrest has abruptly raised additional barriers to advancement. In countries such as Syria, Libya and the Ivory Coast, the conflict brought uncertainty and fragmentation, and has necessitated the sudden evacuation of expatriate technical experts. In Syria in particular, a recruitment freeze has been put in place with certain multinational clients until the end of 2011. Although a skeleton of locally based technical professionals remain to maintain the existing systems, developing and installing new and more powerful technology will be limited until conflict has tempered or been resolved.
Yet, in certain circumstances the development of mobile broadband is not entirely disrupted by prolonged state of warfare. It is possible for contractors to work safely in a context of ongoing conflict. In countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Iraq for instance, successive operators and contractors have developed a thorough local understanding that helps them to continue with their work. Operators become aware of safe zones and local protection for contractors. Whilst adding to the overall cost of installation, such protection measures are readily available so that the latest technology can be installed against a backdrop of international or civil war.
Mobile broadband rollout is certainly not a smooth process across Africa and the Middle East and operators and contractors alike have to tackle barriers to deploying the latest technology. However, the majority of the governments in these regions are committed to economic growth, and an effective telecommunications infrastructure is needed to facilitate this. A good example of that is Ethiopia, which has just received significant investment from China, and Kenya. The Ethiopian Government has plans for the country to become an international outsourcing capital by 2030. With such determination and a considerable investment in the telecommunications capabilities of these countries across Africa and the Middle East, they will be a force to be reckoned with in the long term.