[Column] Dirk-Jan Koeman: Rural Internet needs a technology rethink, as fiber and 4G grapple with viable business models
Kenya is one of the leading countries in Africa with regards to Internet penetration. The exact penetration may vary, based on your source.
Home internet connections are less than 300,000. And if you go to rural areas, Internet access via fiber and 4G network in rural areas - for personal use, cyber cafes, schools, businesses and other institutions - is almost nonexistent.
Key to this absence is the cost of deploying and running 4G, which raises the bar on any Communication Service Provider (CSP) recovering its investment in a rural 4G set-up. For 4G networks, a service provider needs a population density of well over 1,000 people per km in order to generate enough customer usage returns and justify the installation of even a macro cell-site.
Moreover, this option is only actually possible for a big mobile operator that has significant market share, ruling out smaller service providers completely.
For fiber, the cost is even higher - making the population density requirements higher too. This has driven suppliers towards rolling fiber out to densely populated middle class estates where house rents are running at Sh25,000 a month, or more.
Densities such as these make the chances of getting a village 4G signal, let alone fiber, slim to none in the foreseeable future.
Fortunately, there are alternative solutions. The Communications Authority (CA) has what is called the Universal Service Fund (USF) to enhance telecommunications infrastructure in rural areas. Currently, the focus has been on mobile broadband for schools and voice 2G for areas without any coverage. But it is expected that in a next phase, (mobile) internet could be part of the agenda.
Another alternative is the use of innovative and affordable technologies that can be used to reach the unconnected, such as Wi-Fi technology. This technology has now been heavily commoditized, is relatively affordable, and can give network grade quality.
That means people in remote rural areas can enjoy the benefits of the Internet even where population densities are as low as 400 people per square km, using wireless back-haul in the 5GHz unlicensed spectrum with approved equipment. This enables high-quality wide area deployment of Wi-Fi Internet without spectrum costs and with minimal dependency on fixed-line infrastructure.
Thus, while fiber and large supplier 4G may remain out of reach for rural communities, the Internet may not, with various service providers ready leveraging this WiFi technology to deliver markedly low-cost Internet to low income communities in Kenya.
In the end, these efforts will close the gap between the connected and unconnected, which has been highlighted as one of Africa’s most significant dividers in education and opportunity, while delivering affordability, speeds and sustainability.