In today’s world, connectivity is a social and economic imperative. It’s core to the provision of health and education services, to doing business, to improving agricultural output, to saving lives during natural disasters – and so the list goes on. Despite this reality, enormous numbers of people globally remain outside the world of the connected: at least 3 billion do not have voice (telephonic) services, and for even more the internet remains elusive. Hardest hit by this are areas in rural Africa and parts of Asia, such as India.
Those most likely not to have connectivity are the communities in rural areas. The cost and practicalities of rolling out fixed-line telephony to small communities away from urban centres has resulted in fixed-line services being particularly low throughout Africa. While this allowed for the tremendous boom in the mobile industry on the continent, since connectivity via cell towers can reach far larger numbers of people than fixed-line services, it’s suitability for areas beyond urban centres has been limited.
Social entrepreneur and former UN Commissioner for Broadband for Sustainable Development, Vanu Bose, a leading advocate of how connectivity can change the face of Africa says, “For one, rural people generally have low incomes, so their ability to pay for services is limited. The resultant lower revenue projections are exacerbated by the higher costs of delivering services to rural areas – erecting more towers using traditional methods across thousands of kilometres, which will reach relatively small numbers of people, is extremely costly. A second challenge is the question of the cost of power needed to run a cell phone mast remotely. Where there is no grid electricity available, a tower in a rural area simply does not make sense.”
But not addressing connectivity means not accessing the three billion people whose potential contribution to GDPs could end up being exponential. Highlighting this potential, Bose refers to a study done in India which showed that, for every 10% growth in connectivity in a particular community, GDP growth increases by at least 1,2%. According to Bose, “This implies that, if we can find solutions to dealing with the lack of connectivity in Africa, in particular in rural Africa, then we can surely overcome the overwhelming poverty associated with the continent. Through improving connectivity across the continent, more people will have access to healthcare, education, markets for produce and other goods, and so on, and so the potential for people living below or on the subsistence line to move above it is that much greater.
This is the background to a project that Bose is currently working on in Rwanda. “We are putting in 376 small cells to provide connectivity to 1 million Rwandans who have never previously been able to access internet services,” Bose says. At a cost of US$ 10 million, this is a fraction of what any other type of service would cost. The plan is to take to take this model into the rest of Africa.
To achieve his goal, Bose has relooked the traditional model of connectivity. His idea was to create a cheaper, yet stable infrastructure, viable for roll out in rural areas and provide it to mobile network operators as a service. So, instead of focussing on delivering a greater number of traditional cell phone masts, he created different software that uses a cheaper, smaller mast. In addition, “I realised that we had to overcome the challenge of reducing the cost of rural energy supply and, essentially, go off the grid,” he explains. “We developed a base station that uses far less power than the typical one, and the energy is generated through the sun, so we don’t have any dependency on expensive diesel generators. This is crucial for Africa, where possibly the biggest economic challenge remains the lack of adequate energy resources.”
Bose’s vision incorporates a further novel approach. Rather than building very high masts to reach a wide geographic spread, Bose realised that you can reach the majority of people by placing a smaller mast next to any road or path. “90% of the target audience will be within a kilometre or two of the path or road, and so the service provider can easily provide coverage to them,” he explains.
Under-serviced by both fixed-line and mobile services, and crying out for the opportunity to participate more fully in the economy, means innovations like Bose’s could allow Africa’s unconnected billions to become far more attractive to existing mobile network operators or companies wanting to enter this market.