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Always-on broadband is largely a dream for most African internet users. And even what is usually described as broadband would not pass muster as a high speed service in other markets. Earlier this month AfriConnect announced the launch of its ‘iConnect’ wireless broadband internet service in Zambia, a service that they believe brings a whole new internet concept to the country by offering the first affordable, high-speed internet solution. The always-on service not only provides speeds up to twenty times faster than dial-up but does so for a fixed monthly fee. iConnect, which is the first wireless connectivity solution in Zambia, is distinct in that it uses a 4G technology to provide easy access to the internet as well as fast speeds, previously unavailable in the country, writes Mapara Syed.

AfriConnect is a UK based company that offers systems integration and a full range of internet connectivity and related services throughout Africa, with offices in Zambia, Tanzania and Ghana. AfriConnect believes that the immediate availability of broadband within Zambia will transform the ability to undertake competitive business, offer resources for education and health providers, and allow greatly improved services for NGOs and government alike. "In Zambia in particular we found that nobody was serving the market in providing broadband services and certainly not wireless services," AfriConnect’s CEO, Mark Bennett, told us. "As the traditional wired line dial-up services in Zambia are unreliable we decided to launch the first broadband ISP using wireless technology, offering internet speeds of up to 512K."

Unlike other WISPs, iConnect does not incorporate Wi-Fi technology. "Wi-Fi operates in an unlicensed frequency band, and is therefore subject to congestion," said Bennett. "It also requires line-of-sight links when used over anything but very short distances." That is why AfriConnect have instead partnered with NextNet Wireless Inc to use their OFDM wireless non line-of-sight technology. "This operates in the licensed 2.6Ghz frequency band, which is not available to any other users and allows us to operate at very high speeds using small customer units that can be placed inside offices. Also, because we do not use the public spectrum we have dedicated bandwidth to provide a more reliable service," he added.

OFDM (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing) is a physical layer protocol for true non-line-of-sight and 4th generation broadband networks. iConnect's OFDM utilises hundreds of individual carriers and a patented process of mapping a user's data to those carriers, to actually allow the presence of multiple paths between the transmitted and receiver. Therefore, it allows signals to find their way through even where there is no direct route. As a result, the system allows the customer to have their receiving equipment in a location where the signal may have to bounce around off many objects on its way from the transmitter, but the various signals will combine to form the best and strongest available. "Because no line of sight is required there is no need for tall masts and pointing antennas to catch the signal," said Bennett.

At present, iConnect is only available in Greater Lusaka and the service is delivered by just a single base station that AfriConnect have erected in central Lusaka. Customers who fall within the direct coverage area only need to plug in a compact wireless modem into their PC to be connected. "The wireless modem hardware sells for around USD 400, although there are discounts available depending on the service chosen and length of service and so on," said Bennett. Those who fall outside this vicinity need to install an outdoor wireless modem. Services are available at different levels, from those suited to home use through to those for large corporate businesses. "iConnect is aimed at anybody who wants an always-on link and high speed internet connectivity. So we target home users, SMEs, large companies, NGOs, schools, etc," Bennett added.

Services with dedicated international bandwidth are additionally available via AfriConnect’s high quality satellite link. "We have our own VSAT link to the backbone in Europe for international connectivity and are planning to develop this further by installing our own hub in Zambia within the next months," he added. As well as Zambia, AfriConnect also have VSAT operations in Tanzania, Ghana, Kenya, Uganda, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Central African Republic and Gabon. Furthermore, the VSAT link enables networks connecting company and organisation headquarters in Lusaka, using the iConnect service, to their branches and operations in rural areas.

The cost of the service varies depending upon the service level. "The lowest cost for the home user is about USD 75 per month, which is then taxed by the government," said Bennett. "This may seem expensive but when compared to the usual dial-up services, which includes large telephone bills as well, the cost is considerably cheaper," he added. The costs for corporate users are more expensive beginning from around USD 150 per month to up to anything depending on how much the company use the internet. However, Bennett believes that now with the availability of high speed internet connectivity, people will not compromise efficient data retrieval for affordability. "With a wireless broadband solution you can’t know what people are doing now that they couldn’t do before. People didn’t have the option of always-on connectivity and high speed internet services, therefore data retrieval is sometimes more important than saving money. So you can’t compare the costs between a wireless and wired line service as people can do different things with them."

Currently AfriConnect's iConnect is currently the only internet service providing such high broadband speeds. "Other key ISP players in the country like Cellnet, Coppernet and Microlink do not have any broadband products and certainly do not offer wireless connectivity," according to Bennett. It is with this confidence that iConnect will be rolled out shortly in other major urban areas. "We also plan to extend and broaden the products available through iConnect like offering much higher bandwidth and providing domain names," added Bennett.

The number of customers already signed up to iConnect is presently only a few hundred. "As we only started the service at the beginning of the month we only have a few hundred users at the moment," said Bennett. "But you also have to bear in mind the time it takes to install the service as well. By the end of the month we should have about 300 to 400 hundred users and then several thousand in a few months time."