Is Wi-Fi really the answer for rural communities in Africa?
by Kunle Olaoye
The short answer is yes. However, it can never be as simple as that, as there are many factors, broader than the telecommunication space that need to be addressed. However, as many of Africa’s population reside in rural communities, just like citizens living in urban areas they must be afforded the same opportunities and benefits – and providing access has been noted to go a long way in driving economic development and social inclusion.
In fact, the ICT sector plays a significant role – connectivity means citizens have access to information, knowledge to innovate, do business differently etc but ultimately, build a knowledge-based and socially connected community – which certainly has positive socio-economic benefits. In fact, according to the World Bank* for high-income countries, a 10-percentage-point rise in broadband penetration adds a 1.21 percentage point rise in economic growth – an added 1.38 percentage points for low- and middle-income countries.
Providing infrastructure and connectivity allows businesses to gain a footing and start to thrive and as the opportunities grow – so too does the innovation. The more businesses thrive and innovation is at the heart of entrepreneurs, the more people or communities are able to connect, do business or receive necessary help or assistance. In turn, the more development and upliftment takes place. The more this happens, the more quality of life is increased – and so the cycle repeats for generations to come.
We all know that fixed-line access is virtually unheard of in rural communities and people rely on their mobile phones for anything from staying in touch with loved ones to doing business. Having Wi-Fi networks in place in these communities suddenly presents people with options they would not normally have had due to the high cost and limitations of other broadband solutions.
Wi-Fi has a significant role to play here as, not only is it a cost-effective way on connecting citizens, but it can be easily deployed as there is no license required to carry out this function. Additionally, there isn’t a massive infrastructure requirement so it’s achievable especially across geographically dispersed rural areas. What’s more, many rural towns have no broadband, purely from a cost perspective, and as such Wi-Fi provides an alternative to bring broadband to rural areas for much less than what they would pay for 3G for fibre.
Running fibre to tens of thousands of small cells just isn’t feasible. And while microwave is useful, it requires licensed spectrum and line of sight. Wi-Fi is ideal for this application because it can provide high-speed, non-line-of-sight connectivity between nodes much more economically. However, it must have carrier class reliability, be able to adapt to always changing wireless environment and it must be high speed. There’s nothing worse than having bad Wi-Fi – especially when the expectation for connectivity is there.
Fibre will certainly provide another necessary means to connect Africa to the world and, just like the current undersea cables, will add additional speed, capacity and in maturity, decrease costs of broadband. However, while fibre and 4G/LTE services will certainly help increase network capacity, it still won’t be enough because as history has taught us there is an insatiable appetite for bandwidth and now, for spectrum as well.
As a result, Africa is now taking a much more strategic view of Wi-Fi as we are seeing that Wi-Fi access has so much potential to shape the business and consumer landscape in Africa and as such, it only makes sense to implement the technology in such a way to draw the most benefit from it.
It’s simple – citizens should have the right to access information – no matter where they are based. We live on a continent where data is very expensive and while you may access information via your mobile devices – you’re paying for that, as such, it can be limited. So there needs to be ways where citizens are able to connect even when they don’t have the data to do so – a complementary medium if you will and Wi-Fi provides exactly that.
July 12, 2018