Rwanda has reversed its decision to depend on a Single Wholesale Network for 4G, 5G and future technologies, through a new broadband policy which opens the door for better 4G penetration in all parts of the country and the launch of 5G in future.
Rwanda has made great strides in closing the coverage gap, with just 1% of the population left to go. The adoption of broadband services, on the other hand, and in particular 4G services, remains lower compared to countries in the region, according to GSMA Intelligence data. As at the end of 2021, 24% of the total population was connected to mobile internet services. However, critically, another 75% live in areas covered by mobile broadband networks but do not yet use mobile internet services (the usage gap). This share is 14% higher than the regional average.
The launch of the National Broadband Policy and Strategy reaffirms the country’s commitment to connecting everyone and everything for a better future and it is believed that the new policy now offers a great opportunity for Rwanda to catch up with other countries in the region, and in the process improve the lives of millions. Therefore, the GSMA congratulates the Government of Rwanda on the launch of its new broadband policy, however, the future of mobile broadband in Rwanda depends on what happens next.
A successful way forward starts with the government and mobile operators collaborating on long-term solutions towards the implementation of the policy. Mobile Network Operators (MNO) access to an adequate amount of spectrum under favourable conditions is paramount and this step opens the door for high-quality 4G service at affordable prices to consumers. It is also essential to clarify spectrum refarming to facilitate immediate 4G deployment in their current spectrum portfolio, this will also be fundamental in laying the foundation for 5G in the future.
The GSMA recommends the following building blocks:
Technology Neutral utilisation of mobile spectrum and spectrum refarming
Technology-neutral spectrum licences enable mobile operators to refarm spectrum used for GSM (2G) or 3G to 4G and 5G with the timing of the refarming driven by market demand. This maximises spectral efficiency in a technical sense and also maximises efficient use of spectrum.
Rwanda’s new broadband policy includes support for technology neutrality in the utilisation of spectrum assigned to service providers for the deployment of mobile communications services. This development is welcomed as it paves the way for the rapid deployment of 4G services by all service providers in Rwanda, particularly as empirical evidence highlights the economic benefit brought about by introducing 4G mobile broadband technologies:
- “For a given level of total mobile penetration a 10 per cent substitution from 2G to 3G increases per capita GDP by 0.15 percentage points. …A doubling of mobile data use leads to an increase in the GDP per capita growth rate of 0.5 percentage points.” (1)
- “Doubling the broadband speed will contribute to 0.3% growth compared with the growth rate in the base year”.(2)
With the infrastructure already deployed to utilise legacy technology-specific spectrum assignments for 2G and 3G, MNOs are ready to deploy advanced 4G technologies in these spectrum bands, and it is recommended that the government expeditiously clarifies how all licensees can utilise their current spectrum holdings in the deployment of 4G services.
A spectrum roadmap is also crucial as it is an important means of ensuring there is sufficient spectrum for future demand from consumers and new technologies. Understanding the Government’s plans for spectrum for new uses in advance of the technology becoming available is important so that the industry has time for developing business strategies, planning technology deployment, securing capital expenditure, and coming up with an implementation plan. Information on spectrum releases (including vital 5G bands such as 3.5 GHz) is critical for businesses to prepare investment plans, secure financing and develop arrangements for deploying particular technologies. Therefore, Rwanda needs to develop and publish a plan which will illustrate trends in technology, assess spectrum needs for new technologies, identify needed spectrum bands, highlighting plans to clear spectrum where needed, provide timelines for spectrum release, etc.
Spectrum and infrastructure sharing
The decision to allow technology neutrality in Rwanda comes with additional challenges to be resolved between the government and the licensee of the current 4G network. It is important to ensure the network infrastructure and spectrum are used efficiently, as they are such important assets. Different options, such as spectrum and infrastructure sharing, should be explored in this case.
Spectrum clean-up and key 5G bands
Considering MNOs currently have access to 900 MHz, 1.8 GHz and 2.1 GHz, while the legacy Single Wholesale 4G network is based on 800 MHz and 1.8 GHz, key bands for the future of mobile communications are not yet available in Rwanda. 2 GHz of spectrum  is needed for 5G in mid-band by industry during this decade. This is the average value needed to guarantee the IMT2020 requirements for 5G. As the 3.5 GHz range has become the basis for the first implementations of 5G globally, it is therefore critical that Rwanda begins to explore how to make this band available for 5G as soon as practicable.