Last month I happen to sit at the expert panel discussing rural telecoms at the annual EastAfricacom conference at the KICC. This conference brings together over 600 telecoms executives to discuss and share ideas and lessons on the advancement of telecoms in the greater Eastern Africa region and is organized by comworld series.
I sat at the panel that discussed the topic ” Strategies to Solve the Service Gap in Rural Areas”. Other panelists were Bayan Monadjem (Director of Network & CAPEX Planning, Airtel Africa), Jean-Pierre Bienaimé, (Chairman, UMTS Forum, SVP Strategy & Comm.s, Wholesale, Orange F-T Group), Khalil Nassar (CTIO, Vivacell, Southern Sudan), Julius Kinyua (CEO, Flashcom), Faical Mahamoud (Marketing & Communications Director, Djibouti Telecom), Declan Murphy (Founder, The Ecology Foundation) and Job Ndege (MD iWayAfrica Services) whom i was representing.
The panel discussed the issues and challenges that face the expansion of networks to offer rural access and some of the highlights include:
- Lack of commercial incentives to invest in rural networks due to the poor ROI. It came out that majority of telcos who have invested in rural areas did so due to clauses in their licenses that required them to devote a certain % of their capital to rural networks
- The lack of a working universal access fund policy that can aid in the funding of rural networks by operators who would have otherwise not invested in rural areas
- Lack of mains power supply making it expensive to offer services in rural areas due to the large opex spent on power generation which is mostly done by use of Diesel generators
Some of the key proposals were as follows
- The governments should spur rural access by first being a consumer of access services through e-government initiatives in the rural areas.
- Lowering of Capex by sharing of infrastructure by telcos operating in rural areas
- The extension of mains electricity supply to rural areas as a precursor to rural network access. There was also the proposal for use of alternate power supply sources such as solar and wind to power rural network infrastructure and the creation of power kiosks outside the base stations to provide free cellphone charging services to rural folk. The base stations could also distribute the excess power they generate to the nearby villages.
- Design tariffs and products that suit rural customers who do not have a constant income stream.