London — One of the first commercial African operators to use TV White Spaces technology will launch at the end of next month. C3 has already rolled out its network to a large refugee camp in Dowa and will make a full launch at the end of May. Russell Southwood spoke to its founder and CEO Richard Chisala about the strategy he is adopting.
C3's founder Richard Chisala was on the Board of the Malawian regulator MACRA and was involved in one of the early TVWS pilots from the regulator side. When Microsoft opened its Access Programme, he applied through his systems integrator company C3 in 2015. The following year C3 was selected and offered US$0.5 million to set up its network.
C3's service will publicly launch at the end of May:"We're about three months late which is pretty much normal for this part of the world." But he already has operational a link to a refugee camp 40 miles north of the capital Lilongwe in a town called Dowa.
The connectivity gets to Dowa using Mimosa equipment (on 5 GHz, delivering a 1 gbps connection) which then connects to TV White Spaces (TVWS) equipment (delivering 30 mbps) on the peak of a local mountain, which in turn services the local Wi-Fi access points. He will be trialing different equipment and antenna to ensure that he can get the widest coverage area possible.
The camp has 29,000 inhabitants so is really a town in its own right. He has put in 10-12 access points to cover the whole camp and will put in more to give the local community in Dowa access as well. The local community will be able to buy vouchers that enable them to access the Internet.
C3 took a decision to build its own wireless national backbone and will have 81-95 tower locations across the country, 65 of which it will own itself:"We've bought all that equipment... We will be the only ISP with a countrywide footprint. Most operators have cherrypicked the premium users. We've taken a different model, we want to blanket the country."
"We took a conscious decision to build our own towers because the current siting fees (on other operator's towers) are very high." By doing so, he believes he will be able to substantially reduce the cost of each tower.
As he points out, there is only one other operator - MTL - with a countrywide footprint:"The microfinance operators have to use a mix of operators to connect all their operations nationally."
Malawi has licensed two DTT operators - Malawi Digital Broadcast Network and Multichoice's Go TV - each with 12 channels. With the digital transition completed, this offers C3 "an advantage as we have the opportunity to explore TV White Spaces." In regulatory terms, Malawi has a draft TVWS framework where licence fees will be kept at a low level. C3 was given a licence for a commercial trial and looks forward to getting a full TVWS licence once the framework is in place.
Chisala highlights the role of the Government in making things happen"We've received interesting incentives. The commercial trial licence enabled us to show Microsoft that we were legally allowed to do it. We've also received a duty waiver."
C3's focus is corporates and SMEs who want Point-To-Multi-Point services on a monthly basis. Part of this market is the 800 NGOs in the country. It has a partnership with Nethope and has been training some of their IT Officers in how and why they might deploy TVWS:"We want to work like a utility company and we want them to be able to deploy TVWS." Once it has built a sufficient base of corporate and SME customers, it will start to look at the individual consumer sector.
His marketing strategy is to focus on throughput speeds and unlimited data and a significant price differential:"We have done an analysis of operator prices in Malawi. We will be between 35-50% cheaper than other operators."
His main competitors will be a mix of MTL, mobile operators (TNM and Airtel) and ISPs of different flavours (Skyband, SNDP, Globe Malawi and Access Communications). MTL have fibre in the big cities and have ADSL, WiMAX and CDMA: it announced this week it will drop CDMA and WiMAX by the end of this year. It does fibre to the premises but there is currently no Fibre-To-The-Home offer.
Airtel has close to 85% network coverage but not all of its network offers 3G. TNM has recently deployed LTE but only in Malawi's two largest cities, Blantyre and Lilongwe. Skyband is the largest of the ISPs and was recently bought by a South African company. There is the possibility of a new operator called Celcom, which is owned locally by a conglomerate company owned by the Mulli Brothers. It has been struggling to roll out and was given a licence extension in 2015. It says it will roll out this year. Internet penetration in Malawi is currently around 5%.
Malawi now has a "virtual landing point" run by Wananchi's Simbanet. C3 is buying capacity from the virtual landing point significantly cheaper than the normal US$380-500 per mbps. For redundancy purposes, it will have three international connections: Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia).
"Our biggest competitor is Airtel because they have the money... Operators tend to sell the technology. We're doing 4G and we'll be selling the capacity and speed."