London — Not surprisingly, two-thirds of the stories in this week's e-letter are Covid-19 related. As with the ebola, the latest health crisis shines a light on the need to connect Africa's unconnected. Health workers need to know where Covid-19 is spreading to and the economically disadvantaged need to be able to stay in touch with their urban families. Russell Southwood spoke to Bradley Shaw, Regional Manager Middle East and Africa, NuRAN Wireless about initiatives to expand rural coverage.
Hard-to-reach rural areas were for many years the poor relative of the MNO's core business. Indeed some MNOs were happy to say quietly that they had no intention of expanding coverage areas. So what has changed? There are now a series of niche vendors who can deliver cheaper base stations. Solar panel power has become cheaper and more reliable. Satellite prices - once a major cost for remote sites - have now come down considerably.
The dam burst last autumn when the MTN Group issued an RFP to build 5,000 base stations for what it call rural, ultra-rural, and ultra-ultra rural sites across all MTN operations by the end of 2020. Across its 17 African opcos that would be just under 300 sites per country.
At the time, Group Executive, Network Design & Planning, MTN Group Navindran Naidoo told Tower Exchange how it would work.
"We are interested in the role that independent telecom tower companies (towercos) can play in enhancing rural connectivity. Leasing space on towers could be an important enabler of investment in rural and ultra-rural areas. However, the leasing model is unlikely to be operable in ultra-ultra rural areas where low ARPUs will be unable to support more than one operator. Sharing infrastructure is an option for reducing the cost of roll-out and OPEX too".
Sadly towerco's have largely functioned as vehicles for offshoring CAPEX and have not had a large role to play in this space so far. However, things may change... but I wouldn't hold your breath.
"For backhaul we expect to use a variety of technologies. In rural sites we have specified microwave backhaul as these sites should not be too far away from our existing network. For ultra-ultra-rural sites, we have specified optimised Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) backhaul. Ultra-rural sites will see a mixture of the two solutions".
"The towers will also differ from site to site. At normal rural sites, shareable macro towers will be used; at ultra-rural sites we expect shorter towers of between 10m and 20m. While at ultra-ultra rural sites, we are leaving the details of the structure to our vendors to propose depending on what they think will work best".
"We don't only need sites which have a low-cost bill of materials, but we need structures with minimal maintenance and a quick implementation timeline. It should take up to a week to erect a rural site, but our ultra-ultra rural sites should be complete in a day or two".
"We think offering data and internet connectivity is essential. Even at our ultra-ultra rural sites we want to be able to offer at least 3G levels of connectivity".
NuRAN Wireless has formed a partnership with Raenna Nigeria "to expand mobile connectivity in Africa." NuRAN is also a partner for MTN Group's rural expansion described above.
Alongside this large carrier initiative, the GSMA ran a competition for Connected Society Innovation Grants. In November 2019, a grant of up to £330,000 has been awarded to NuRAN to test and evaluate new innovative mobile internet connectivity solutions for unconnected rural communities in Africa. The fund will be allocated in partnership with Vodafone Ghana and is set to run for approximately 18 months. A total number of 7 new greenfield sites in Northern Ghana will pilot innovative solutions of the Company to deploy mobile broadband networks in rural areas, that will provide low-cost mobile internet coverage through commercially sustainable models, that can be scaled and replicated in similar environments across the region.
"This collaboration is ground-breaking in its aims to connect unconnected communities in rural locations and deliver a range of essential digital services," said Akinwale Goodluck, Head of Sub-Saharan Africa, GSMA. "The challenge is not only bringing mobile internet coverage to rural areas, which can be twice as expensive as in urban areas and with smaller revenue opportunities but to do so in a way that ensures long-term commercial sustainability. Innovation and partnership is essential to addressing this challenge, and the Innovation Fund, in association with the mobile ecosystem and government partners, is playing a key role in identifying new ways of using mobile technology to connect the unconnected."
Both of these initiatives are in danger of being delayed by the Covid-19 crisis. They face significant supply chain difficulties and research and testing in the labs has been slowed down as initially people work from home:"We're trying to import batteries and other equipment from China to Ghana. It will add a 4-5 month delay and it's starting to impact us." Nevertheless Shaw remains optimistic and says other rural contracts will be signed in the coming months.