WTL calls for infrastructure sharing in rural Africa

At the Innovation Africa Digital Summit held in Uganda last week, World Telecom Labs (WTL) called on regulators to use USF money to build wholesale networks in rural Africa – and to reallocate unused spectrum for these networks.

With infrastructure sharing now common across the continent, WTL believes that the removal of the CAPEX cost of building a rural network will enable regulators to pressure previously reluctant operators to start offering services in these areas.

Despite the ongoing efforts of initiatives such as internet.org, the Alliance for Affordable Network, Facebook’s Freebasics and The Telecom Infra Project (an initiative co-founded by Facebook which WTL was one of the first wave of companies to join), the GSMA estimates that mobile penetration was still only 44% in 2016 with “two thirds of the population in Africa living in rural areas where capital-intensive infrastructure deployment is commercially unviable.”

Mr Satya Mekala, one of the directors of WTL, said many rural initiatives in Africa never got off the ground or started but quickly closed. Despite the good intentions of industry players the sustainability of rural networks will always be an issue.

“Operators are understandably reluctant to expand into areas where ARPUs are low. Infrastructure sharing is now acceptable and widespread across the telecoms ecosystem and so there is no reason why this model wouldn’t be successful in rural areas. Wholesale rural networks would be a good and sustainable investment for USF money with measurable results available,” he said.

In many African countries, spectrum is owned by the established MNOs who are not using it in rural areas but are still unwilling to release it for use by others, he added.  Mr Mekala called on regulators to introduce ‘use it or lose it’ measures for spectrum.  He also suggested that Africa adopt the Mexican model where a dedicated frequency is reserved for low margin networks.

WTL firmly believes that the building of wholesale networks by an independent party over which multiple traditional and new operators can offer competitive services is the route to connecting the unconnected.

WTL is already working in three countries in Africa to build wholesale rural networks.  Last year it cemented its position as the company with the best commercially viable and sustainable system for building networks in rural villages in emerging markets by winning multiple awards in 2016 including the Best Connectivity Solution category at the prestigious AfricaCom awards. 

WTL is currently conducting a survey to identify some of the key technological factors preventing the rollout of rural networks in Africa.

It is inviting people from across the telecoms ecosystem including vendors, operators and ISPs, NGOs and Government Officials to complete the short survey which can be found at http://wtl.be/survey/rural-networks-in-africa

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