Will wireless and satellite services close the digital divide? asks Dr Dawie de Wet, CEO of Q-KON.
While fibre and fixed networks have the potential to close the digital divide, it is still very limited to selected metro and urban areas. Mobile service, on the other hand, will soon have a 100% penetration rate while being limited by capped bundles and pricing structures.
There are other niche technologies that can also make an impact on the digital divide. In particular, fixed wireless and broadband satellite networks hold major potential. However, we need to carefully understand the dynamics of each and their related industries in order to understand where they would best be deployed.
Fixed wireless access networks are mostly operated by Wireless ISP’s (WISPs) who utilise unlicensed 2,4GHz and 5,8GHz frequency spectrum to provide services in off-grid locations. Using a network of base stations, WISPs will typically service areas around smaller cities and economically active areas such as the Stellenbosch valley, greater Nelspruit area, etc. These are mostly regional operators with strong local support, offering a good value-for-money package based on local investment.
WISPs are well positioned to drive growth in fixed wireless access and have a significant share in the expected subscriber growth of 13,78 million to 19,97 million, as forecasted by Ovum. Their target market is business, industrial and high-value users in their district areas and who are within reach of the wireless network coverage areas.
For WISPs to become a true option for closing the digital divide, they would need wider support from regulatory bodies. This support would include increasing allocated spectrum, potentially granting selected WISPs universal access licenses, and/or enabling WISPs to carry voice services with interconnect to telcos. Only once WISPs have the support of the regulatory framework will they be able to put forward credible business cases, which are required to attract larger funding and resource pools to service the mass market in the designated market footprint.
The other alternative niche technology is broadband satellite services. With the latest developments in high-throughput-satellite platforms, the technology is certainly a strong contender to close the digital divide. So far, the market has seen various entrants into this sector and services such as Yahclick, Avanti and Konnect Africa are getting more popular. With a potential service capacity of between 100,000 and 500,000 users per platform, satellite will always remain the minority option in terms of site quantities.
With a satellite terminal deployment cost reaching below R5 000, and adding WiFi local hotspots behind each satellite terminal, this combination can be a powerful alternative to service high density subscriber areas. At an average of 50 users per hotspot, the possible subscriber base for each satellite platform is increased to 25 million, making it a medium capacity network with a CAPEX/subscriber requirement of only R100.
As is the case with WISPs, the biggest obstacles for the satellite industry to reach this level of penetration are factors beyond technology, ie. regulation and implementation capability. Many African regulators still consider satellite access networks under previously defined categories, with annual license fees charged on a per-terminal basis. Such a regulatory policy does very little to stimulate large scale deployments, especially when the regulatory charges are becoming significant in relation to the equipment terminal costs.
At this point in time, we are at a cross roads where the mobile and fixed network operators have the investment capability, the market awareness and the general preference in user adoption required to close the digital divide. However, the mobile operators will need to be totally redefined and restructured to move away from billing based on SIMs, and the fibre network operators will always be limited by the feasible target market footprint.
On the other hand, the niche wireless and satellite technology providers need to be supported by governments and regulatory frameworks in order to lower the barriers to service delivery. These technologies are probably the best suited option to address the market gaps — provided the service providers can unlock the user base.
All technologies and all service provider models will be required to enable Africa and drive broadband growth. Each technology has its own specific advantages and industry position, with none being considered as a replacement for any other.