The challenges mobile operators face when providing broadband connectivity to rural communities

This post was guest-authored by Semvua Kissenge, Network Planning Manager at Tigo Tanzania. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the GSMA. 

Providing mobile broadband connectivity to rural communities is one of the major challenges that operators are facing in Tanzania today. This is due to a variety of reasons including; access to energy, the population’s geographic distribution and affordability, even where data services are among the cheapest in the region. Three mobile operators (Airtel, Tigo and Vodacom) have worked in collaboration with the GSMA to launch live pilot sites as part of the rural connectivity project. Through a tripartite national roaming agreement, the sites jointly provide broadband connectivity to all operator customers from a single tower, allowing their subscribers roaming on each other’s networks in a selected number of rural locations.

Although the objective of the project to provide mobile broadband connectivity to a wider population of approximately 70,000 citizens in the selected areas was considered attainable, there were various challenges that operators faced during the implementation including:

a. The pilot project of having 3 operators simultaneously implementing National Roaming is the first of its kind to be deployed in Tanzania and probably in the whole African continent especially with the support of GSMA.

b. The mobilization of resources and their coordination between the various types of stakeholders involved in the project: operators but also their respective vendors (Ericsson for Tigo, Huawei for Airtel and Nokia for Vodacom) as well as Government institutions (Ministry and UCSAF).

c. The locations where the pilot sites were implemented are in remote rural areas where physical access is already difficult per definition. For example, acquiring the right access to the land at the appropriate location to fulfill coverage objectives or sending a technical team to set up the base station and carry out tests to ensure that services are provided satisfactorily are challenges by themselves.

d. The different vendors involved by each operator have different modalities of execution and these differences created some of the challenges encountered during integration of national roaming features in each other’s networks.

Besides the above challenges that operators faced during the project implementation, all major obstacles were managed through a strong partnership amongst stakeholders: technical representatives from each operator working together as a team despite being competitors with the support from the GSMA M4D Connected Society team, their Group colleagues sponsoring the initiatives, local teams from vendors providing these low cost equipment adapted to rural environment (with solar panel to power them away from the grid) and Government institutions, especially UCSAF, the Tanzanian universal service agency, who has a long standing understanding of these rural roll-outs. This kind of industrial collaboration is a clear demonstration of how some of the industry challenges can be addressed while creating value to all involved. This is the beginning and can be a best practice to share with the rest of the world.

To conclude there are several lessons learnt from this GSMA rural pilot project that the industry could keep note of:

1. Involving appropriate Government institutions both central and local at the right level from the beginning is a key success factor in terms of processing of needed administrative approvals. The project benefitted from the Universal Communication Services Access Fund (UCSAF) technical experts who were involved in each project milestone. As a matter of fact, this project has been a great opportunity for all to see that lead time to get all approvals for site acquisition and site building is a non-negligible challenge.

2. Formulating this specific initiative and keeping it of reasonable size made successful completion of the proof of concept achievable despite the many challenges to overcome on the way. We also hope that the lessons learned in the process can be useful to start similar initiatives in other markets.

3. Moreover, recognizing the added value that multiple partners can bring to such project is another success factor to underline. We are very thankful to equipment vendors who contributed and more specifically to Ericsson who provided Tigo with their low-cost base station design for rural areas for this trial. Now that we are discussing next steps support from bilateral and multilateral development partners could become helpful to find a solution towards economic sustainability.

Indeed this project shows the technical feasibility and economic rationale for services to be provided through multi stakeholders collaboration igniting economic development of these remote areas. We are also looking forward to our next discussion with the Government of Tanzania to see how we can factor in some of the project’s lessons learned.

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