Balancing Act (London)

22 August 2014

Africa: Broadband in Gulu and 4G in Accra - Two Sides of the Same Coin for Africa's New Generation Local Roll-Outs

analysis

London — A new ISP set up in Uganda's remote north and 4G became available in Ghana from a new operator. Neither of these developments involved mobile operators and how they came about may set the pattern of Africa's new roll-outs. Russell Southwood spoke to people at the heart of both initiatives this week.

Gulu's Zoom Wireless has been set up by long-time Kenyan ISP activist Brian Longwe in partnership with Inveneo's commercial spin-off Volo Broadband (see here in Issue no 710). Zoom Wireless is part of Sinfa Uganda Ltd, a social enterprise which has Oxfam as its lead partner.

At the bottom of its offer range, there is Zoom Access, which gives you a symmetrical 512 kbps link and at the top of the range is Zoom Corporate Access where you can get 5-9 mbps for US$189.35. Neither of these prices is blindingly cheap but as Longwe says:"They are very competitive with current offering except mobile bundles which aren't very very fast."

The service started on a trial basis in mid July and officially launched at the beginning of August. The service is currently available only in Gulu but in a short time it has got 20 customers and Longwe believes that there is a potential for 200-250 customers. Once we get past a certain threshold, we plan to expand to nearby towns. The threshold is 100-120 subscribers and then we'll pull the trigger on the expansion." With the partnership with Volo, it has been able to set up very fast and thinks the expansion will also be reasonably quick to do.

At the moment they are connected into the national fibre backbone and the next logical steps for expansion would be Lira and Arua. The former is connected to the national fibre backbone but the latter is not, therefore they would have to build their own infrastructure. This would probably involve high speed microwave and could give them a reach of 300-400 kms beyond Gulu.

The total cost of the Gulu roll-out was US$45,000 for 3 POPs and all the equipment to run the operation. US$25,000 of this total is the solar back-up to give 36 hour power in event of an outage. Longwe reckons that each of the two planned expansions could be made for US$30,000 each.

Volo Broadband's Mark Summer sees it as a model for expansion in currently un-serviced areas in other parts of Africa:"Initially we're looking at countries where regulations allow operators like Zoom to operate easily. This includes, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Ghana and Nigeria. It doesn't mean no to everywhere else but it depends on the service provider and whether there's access to affordable bandwidth."

This kind of development shows that an independent operator - either commercially or as a social enterprise - can set up relatively cheaply to cover towns and districts that have existing mobile data but not a solid broadband service for the home or office. This may or may not involve mobile operators but currently it looks like the indeoendents will take the first steps.

It is again an independent ISP that has taken the lead in providing LTE coverage for the first time in Greater Accra this week. But as Surfline's Rosy Fynn told me:"The plan is to start here and get some learnings before we do an aggressive roll-out strategy. The next places will probably be Kumasi and Takoradi but the decision will be finalised after we see what happens in Accra."

Fynn is completed buzzed up by their launch offer which is clearly designed to take ground before the mobile operators and other independents (like Blu) enter the market:"The qualifying bundle will give you a free device and we'll double your data balance so long as you remain as an active customer." The initial data bundle is 1 Gb for US$6.80 and 50 GB for US$20.60. "We're competitive with the incumbent (MTN providing 3G) and we want to ensure affordability. We have price points for all the different levels in the market."

So what's the potential?:"We can handle thousands of customers without congestion and want to go as fast as possible, which is why we have put together the aggressive promotion."

So what will drive use?:"We've been testing since June and from what we've seen people want a consistent high quality of Internet service and if we deliver that, the use will be there. People will pay more if it's a reliable service. Downloading is also very popular with things like files for research and streaming. There's also been video conferencing on Skype."

So will they be offering content as a lure to the service?:"It's definitely part of the plan but not at this moment in time. But it's a lifestyle brand so we'll be doing this very soon. On the corporate side we have an SLA with Microsoft to offer their business solutions."

It is a wholly Ghanaian company chaired by John Taylor (who owns oil-related businesses) and it has invested US$100 million in 300 base stations so far.

For a while it looked like independent challenger ISPs were a thing of the past as the mobile operators wiped up the burgeoning Internet demand with 3G coverage. But the mobile operators seem much more cautious now and this seems to be providing a window for the comeback of this kind of agile challenger.

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