Africa’s Telecoms Infrastructure: 2015 at a Glance

The rconnect-africa_Steve Song_02162016eal impact of technological innovation is often not felt until long after market introduction – particularly in emerging markets. Take the launch of the first mobile networks in sub-Saharan Africa in 1994 for example: the impact of affordable access granted by mobile technology was not felt until more than ten years later. We are at a similar juncture today with fibre optic technology. The first high-capacity, Open Access, undersea cable to reach countries in sub-Saharan Africa was launched in July 2009 with little fanfare. Today, more than a dozen undersea cables encircle the continent offering many terabits of digital capacity. The arrival of both capacity and competition on the shores of African countries has triggered a wave of investment in terrestrial fibre optic infrastructure to the point that virtually every African nation has at least one – and many have several – fibre-optic backbone connected to those undersea cables.

While much of the investment in fibre optic infrastructure has been spurred by the need to provide better, faster and cheaper backhaul for mobile networks, it also created an enabling environment for complementary last-mile solutions – a positive side effect for all.  Previously, the cost of building a communication access network involved solving an array of expensive problems, from international backhaul, to national network access, middle and last mile challenges, as well as the diffusion and maintenance of access devices.  Now, with the advent of local availability of Open Access fibre networks in primary and secondary cities in sub-Saharan Africa, new opportunities have opened up for access providers.

This year has seen an explosion of non-mobile last-mile initiatives launched across the continent, from metropolitan WiFi networks, to TV White Space initiatives and Fibre To The Home (FTTH).  Over the past year, eleven African countries announced major WiFi access initiatives, some in urban areas and townships like Project Isizwe in South Africa and Argon Telecom in Kenya, and some nationwide initiatives, such as in Mauritius and the Seychelles.

Newer access technologies like TV White Spaces also saw growth in 2015 with new pilots in Mozambique, Botswana, Mauritius, and Morocco. But perhaps the most interesting news was from Mawingu, a Kenyan TV White Space startup that began as a pilot in 2013, but last year, announced that it was negotiating a loan of four million dollars from the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) to expand its network.

Finally, Fibre To The Home (FTTH) also took off in 2015, with six African countries announcing FTTH initiatives.  South Africa stands out with multiple FTTH initiatives ranging from community-led projects such as Parkhurst in Johannesburg to business roll-outs from all the major operators.

All of this is great news for the evolution of affordable access as fibre networks open up the market for both technological and business-model innovation in the last mile.  A more comprehensive review of African telecommunications infrastructure developments in 2015 can be found at

Digital Divide and Unlicensed Spectrum

This Thought Leadership contribution is co-written by Prof. H Sama Nwana, Executive Director of the Dynamic Spectrum Alliance and Richard Thanki of the University of Southhampton’s Institute for Complex Systems Simulation.

Google’s launch earlier this month of its first Wi-Fi network in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, is part of a rising tide of efforts to widen access to affordable high-speed Internet, especially in developing countries. It comes on the heels of Facebook’s October announcement of its own initiative to increase Internet access in Africa by using satellites.

These examples from Google and Facebook are just two of the many efforts worldwide to close the digital divide and connect the world’s “next 4 billion” people who don’t have affordable access to high-speed Internet. As these initiatives proliferate, we should remember that true competition is needed to dent the stubborn barriers of affordability and accessibility that often prevent faster connectivity growth, leaving billions out of the new digital economy. And, given the rapid global growth of both Wi-Fi and smartphone usage, we should consider the importance of unlicensed spectrum, particularly unused “TV White Spaces.”

To date, unlicensed technologies using high-frequency spectrum have been limited to short-range communications. However, access to the unused, lower-frequency TV White Spaces would unlock a range of potential applications for connecting “the next 4 billion.” The extension of Wi-Fi to TV bands would provide an alternative but complementary ecosystem to 3GPP (2G/3G/4G/5G) for bridging the digital divide, stimulating the competition needed for success.

A track record of innovative solutions

In the early 1990s, the United States’ Federal Communications Commission (FCC) allowed the Industrial, Scientific and Medical (ISM) spectrum bands to be used for communications on an unlicensed basis. Since then, these unlicensed bands encouraged remarkable collaboration and competition, between large established companies and small start-ups, leading to the emergence of a multiplicity of wireless protocols, such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and ZigBee.

These technologies have had a revolutionary impact, including nearly ubiquitous Wi-Fi, sensory and automation networks in homes and industry and medical implants with wireless communications. The lack of cumbersome and bureaucratic licensing requirements enables innovators to bring their products to market without the need to secure permission, and the range of applications of unlicensed wireless technology continues to grow.

Future potential

However, access to the unused TV White Spaces (TVWS) has the potential to extend the unlicensed revolution to long-range uses. TVWS regulations enable technologies that can play a critical role in extending Internet access to the billions still unconnected in the world’s rural areas. Already rural users are being connected in a large number of countries, including the United States, Kenya, and the Philippines. Another key use of TVWS-enabled technology will be in the area of wide-area sensor networks designed to monitor floods, pollution and the poaching of endangered animals over vast areas. In cities, we will see the use of TVWS to control traffic, monitor infrastructure and read utility meters. In homes, Wi-Fi enabled with TVWS will eliminate connectivity blackspots.

In the many TVWS-enabled broadband initiatives taking place around the world, smartphones are already being connected over TVWS, with Wi-Fi as an intermediary. However, new revisions of Wi-Fi (in the 802.11af standard) will allow smartphones direct access to this technology. There are likely to be many implications. First, a user’s home Wi-Fi network will no longer stop abruptly at their front door, instead extending into their local area. Second, the provision of Wi-Fi over large areas such as university campuses and even whole cities is likely to become easier to deploy and more ubiquitous. Smartphones that can function in remote forests and natural reserves become a distinct possibility. The increase in mobile data usage on mobile network operators’ (MNOs’) networks may be slowed by the advent of unlicensed TVWS-enabled networks (and higher frequencies WiFi in 2.4 and 5GHz), providing MNOs a chance to defer infrastructure investment. In time, MNOs are likely to be a large-scale user of TVWS, adding the technology to their GSM- and Wi-Fi-based networks of today – hence WiFi being an alternative but complementary ecosystem to 3GPP.

TV White Space in Nigeria

As the Dynamic Spectrum Alliance (DSA) advocates around the world for closing the digital divide and for more dynamic allocation of spectrum in order to alleviate the “spectrum crunch”, including non-primary access to TVWS (TV White Space), it appears Nigeria has taken heed. Spectrum is the undisputed oxygen of the wireless world. However, usage of wireless networks globally is skyrocketing and even in Africa, a country like Nigeria is…

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Tuning in Spectrum’s White Space

The last decade witnessed tremendous innovations in dynamic spectrum access (DSA), an approach to letting secondary users access the spectrum holes called “white spaces” in licensed spectrum bands. More work still needs to be done.

People in the field have developed techniques to determine if a frequency band is occupied by a primary user and built radios, protocols, and cloud infrastructure that…

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Carlson Returns to Super Wi-Fi Summit

Carlson Wireless Technologies

In two short weeks, Carlson Wireless will be attending and speaking at the Super Wi-Fi Summit at The Rio in Las Vegas. Carlson has attended this show before, but we wanted to give you 5 things you can expect from us at this year’s event.

This event attracts key players in the industry including regulators, tech executives, social influencers, and analysts, all for the common goal of discussing Spectrum Sharing and TV White Space in a global marketplace. The goals? To discover how…

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