The case for remote operators in Africa grows stronger with new regulatory approaches and low cost technology

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With the bankruptcy of low cost, remote base station vendor Altobridge, it looked like the case for niche, remote vendors had taken a nose-dive. But a number of things have come together to make the picture somewhat brighter than it might first appear. Russell Southwood looks at recent developments.

At the ITU’s World Development Conference in April this year, a resolution D19 was passed on Telecommunications for Remote and Rural Areas. Item 3 of the recommendation reads:” Business models which can achieve financial and operational sustainability can be operated by local entrepreneurs supported by a variety of initiatives. These facilities, where necessary, should also be supported by Universal Service Funds as an essential component of rural communications.” So far, so predictable. It’s the equivalent of voting for free beer and longer holidays.

But items 10 and 11 begin to sharpen the focus. Item 10 says:” that it is important to consider small and non-profit community operators, through appropriate regulatory measures that allow them to access basic infrastructure on fair terms in order to provide broadband connectivity to users in rural and remote areas, taking advantage of technological advances,” and item 11 says:”that it is also important that administrations, in their radio-spectrum planning and licensing activities, consider mechanisms to facilitate the deployment of broadband services in rural and remote areas by small and non-profit community operators.”

It goes so far but ought to further. What actually needs to happen is as follows. Mobile operators need to be freed from any licence obligations to extend coverage (that they might or might not have met). So whenever there is an area outside their existing network coverage area, both spectrum and licences can be offered to both independent entities and the mobile operators. If an independent wins the licence to cover these uncovered areas, it get interconnect arrangements with the mobile incumbents for both voice and data. New networks licences in these areas should put a premium on providers offering IP solutions, particularly VoIP.

Rhizomatica in Mexico serves a mountainous area and grew out of the situation the coffee-producing village of Taleo de Castro found itself in. According to a BBC News report:” The phone companies "were asking things of us that were virtually impossible in a small community like this", remembers Wilfrido Martinez, the secretary of Talea's municipal council. In particular, they wanted electricity lines and a new road built to the site where the antenna would be erected, involving significant cost and red tape for the local people”.

So the villagers decided to buy the technology to set up a network in their local neighbourhood, first erecting a single antenna. Through using VoIP they were able to offer both cheaper calls within Mexico and internationally. Based in Oaxaca, Rhizomatica is a not-for-profit organisation.

Peter Bloom of Rhizomatica says: "We see other options. We use new technology, we try to take advantage of local structures and local capacity in order to provide equipment and services at a much lower cost." One key part of its success has been the local community’s strong commitment and desire to be connected. Another part has been that the Mexican regulator granted it spectrum to use. Rhizomatica now also plays a wider role lobbying for remote coverage.

One of the equipment supplier to Rhizomatica has been NuRan Wireless. After conducting evaluation and trials with several radio access equipment vendors, Rhizomatica selected NuRAN Wireless’s LiteCell, a small, inexpensive, and low power consumption GSM basestation that can be commissioned as easily as a Wi-Fi router. Rhizomatica uses the LiteCell units in conjunction with small-scale, open source instantiations of a GSM core network, which use VoIP as the means for conveying calls outside of the village network.

According to NuRAN, the solution costs only a fraction of the price of traditional systems. In many cases, a monthly subscriber fee of only $3 is sufficient to cover all operating expenses and recoup equipment costs in less than two years. It is also well adapted to off-grid deployments, where a 10-kilometer radius cell can be powered by a single solar panel.

NuRAN Wireless equipment of this kind has been deployed in a number of countries both for remote areas and to substitute for existing base stations where off grid power through diesel generators make them expensive to operate. It comes in a variety of different flavours including at one end an Open BTS stack and at the other end a standard ABIS with IP. In data terms, it can currently only provide EDGE.

According to Maxime Dumas:”The version that is most accessible to newcomers is LiteCell which we describe as a network in a box. You can create a small private network where the mobile phones are seen as SIP end points. When you break out of the private network, you use VoIP.” Dumas was reluctant to go public with pricing but what he told me was remarkably cheap.

The equipment in various configurations has been used in a range of countries, including in a large country in Asia:”We’re having discussions in Africa. A few people have come to know about us so far and are interested in doing trials.”

Incumbent mobile operators need to pay attention to this technology. It is disruptive and will begin to shape the next generation of voice networks when everything becomes data.


Digital Content Africa: Balancing Act’s web TV channel Smart Monkey TV has launched a new e-letter called Digital Content Africa. On a fortnightly basis, it will cover online film, music, publishing and services and applications. We have already produced 18 issues and these can be viewed on this link:

Essential reading for those in mobile VAS to anyone just interested in what African and relevant international content they can now get online. If you would like to subscribe, just send an email to info@balancingact-africa.com with Digital Content Africa in the title line. Some examples of past issues below:

Digital Content Africa Z19 – The Mobile Deal that is keeping Africans from having more music, film and TV on their mobiles
Digital Content Africa Z17 – South African entrepreneurs create Live AndroidTv using XBox Media Centre with device costing just over US$100
Digital Content Africa Z16  - MTN Play Côte d’Ivoire is looking for digital content that will play well on mobile phones
Digital Content Africa Z-13 - Ghanaian online platform Reel African announces the launch of first viewer votes feature film competition with cash prize
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Videos interviews to watch:
Gillian Ezra, Simfy Africa on launching a music streaming service with MTN in South Africa

Jose Soares, Net 1 Mobile Solutions on the solar powered Wi-Fi lamp designed to change lives

Sascha Meinrath, X-Lab on using Mesh Wi-Fi to connect the unconnected in Somaliland and Tunisia

Andrea Bohnstedt on the challenges of SME investing and the African tech sector


Antos Stella, CCA on the impact of digital on the music business in Africa – The company MTN bought into


Brett Loubser on how WeChat Africa is both a radio station and a second screen


The late Carey Eaton, One Africa Media on how it became one of Africa's largest online players


Alan Knott-Craig Jr on how Project Isizwe brings Internet to low-income cties in Africa


Pierre van der Hoven on the launch of a low bandwidth mobile streaming service

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