Communication for development Knowledge

Posted July 1999

Special: The first mile of connectivity

Wireless weaves to lessen the gaps in rural telecommunication coverage in Africa

By Mike Jensen
Independent Consultant
Eastern Cape, South Africa
and Don Richardson

1. Introduction

  • Why the first mile?
  • Telecommunication services and stakeholders
    2. Lessons learned
  • Communication for sustainable development
  • Eyes see; ears hear
  • Participatory rural communications appraisal
  • Radio and video
  • State media for democratic development
    3. Technologies
  • Telecommunications for sustainable development
  • Rural telecommunications in Africa
  • Integrated rural development through telecommunications
    4. Applications
  • Internet and rural development
  • Participatory approaches to rural connectivity
  • Empowering communities
  • Rural telecentres
  • Training community animators
  • Video conferencing
  • Connecting with the unconnected
    5. Policies
  • Global information infrastructure
  • Rural networking cooperatives
  • Public and private interests
    Editors, contributors
  • The capitals and larger towns of the African continent are experiencing improvements in telecommunication service, particularly in countries where monopoly "public telecommunication operators" (PTOs) are beginning to liberalize and open up to private sector participation and competition in telecommunication service provision - such as Ghana and Tanzania. The environment for rural areas of the African continent is, in many ways, similar to the situation that still exists for many rural areas in North America, Australia and Europe: rural areas are the last to get connected, and when connected, tend to have the oldest and most unreliable telecommunication systems. The difference in Africa is that 70 to 80 percent of the population live in economically marginal rural areas; and thus their lack of telecommunication infrastructure is a far more serious problem. Without a concerted effort to recognize and act on the problem, rural people in Africa will be among the last to access the benefits of advances in telecommunication technology and telecommunication investments. They will remain "information have-nots" in the global context.

    While most developing countries are experiencing fairly rapid extension and modernization of their telecommunication networks, Sub-Saharan Africa's teledensity has continued to remain at about one per 200 inhabitants. Most of the telecommunication network is analogue and many sections are highly unreliable, especially during the rainy season. Teledensity rates for rural areas are typically less than one telephone line for every 1 000 inhabitants. It is not uncommon for people to have to walk or bicycle for several hours to access a telephone.

    But new technological developments in the use of radio frequencies for wireless communications has advanced rapidly over the past few years resulting in an explosion of possibilities for improving communications infrastructures world-wide. In Africa in particular, wireless technologies are seen as one of the most important ways of addressing the needs of a continent with the least developed telecommunication systems in the world. Radio frequency based transmission systems solutions are now being considered as the among the best options for many initiatives to improve basic telecommunication infrastructure, particularly in rural areas of Africa. Wireless systems also have a special role to play in meeting data communication needs, and the spread of the Internet has placed further demands for widely accessible and reliable high-bandwidth circuits on a generally overburdened and unstable infrastructure.

    Despite the poor telecommunication infrastructure, most African countries have developed some form of low cost local dial-up store and forward e-mail service with a gateway to the Internet - at least 44 of the 54 nations on the continent [1]. If this pattern continues, there will be few African capitals without live Internet by the end of the 1998. However, local Internet access, which is largely dependent upon local telephone service, will still be very rare for rural areas. There are some instances where Internet access is available throughout the country at the cost of a local call, such as in Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe and Senegal, local calls in many countries cost over US$10 per hour [2].

    There are high expectations that new satellite-based communication systems being launched to cover the globe within the decade (such as Iridium and Teledesic), and new projects such as Helium supported stratospheric telecommunications platforms, will radically improve access from the most remote areas of the continent. Realistically, the costs for actually using these systems are unlikely to be within the reach of the average rural African citizen until the first decade of the next century, if not longer. We need to look to for more creative and cost effective solutions to achieve telecommunication connectivity and services at the "first mile" in rural and remote areas.

    Despite the pathetically low teledensity rates in most rural and remote areas of Africa, investments in rural telecommunication remain extremely small. For example, an examination of general Internet infrastructure development reveals that less than 5 percent of activity is oriented to rural Internet connectivity and services, with urban Internet infrastructure, and institutional (e.g., government, academic/research and education) applications gaining the lion's share of investment.

    Given the low level of urbanization in Africa, the minimal number of international donor agency telecommunication projects aimed at rural communities is a distinct deficit. This has recently been identified by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). With the importance of agricultural commerce and trade for African nations, it is surprising that there are so few projects in this sector [3].

    In addition to increased investment in the "first mile," there is also an imperative in the short term to gather further information to properly fulfil a telecommunication development support role and to guide strategy in the development of new assistance programmes. The information sources currently available on telecommunication services for rural Africa (and rural areas elsewhere) are few. There is a special need to gather further information on telecommunication applications that might be relevant to specific aspects of rural development such as health, environment, education, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and agriculture.

    Information on technical options and processes for establishing rural telecommunication infrastructure is also needed. Much of the existing information on technical options for rural connectivity comes directly from vendors of telecommunication hardware. While this information can be of significant value, it must be evaluated against objective evidence of technical and organizational sustainability and cost-benefit analyses. There are many different technical solutions to providing basic rural telephone services, however the specific infrastructure, demographic conditions, organizational capacities, and policy contexts complicate technical choices. Rural telephone service, in an age of privatization and liberalization, must also enable operators to gain a fair return on investment in exchange for the capital costs they incur.

    The combined effects of plummeting equipment costs, the internationalization of communications, liberalization of the telecommunications sectors in many countries and the expanding array of technologies able to exploit new areas of the radio frequency spectrum have produced a dynamic, but relatively immature field, where clear answers are often not yet available. The rapidity of developments has resulted in many differing schools of thought, who have not yet reached agreement on the most appropriate way to make use of these new communications systems.

    The information available on technical options for establishing rural telecommunication services in Africa, and elsewhere, points to the efficacy of wireless connectivity solutions. Plain old telephone services, or POTS, consisting of land-based copper cables, telephone poles and switches, are costly to install, particularly in expansive rural regions. Copper cables and telephone poles are also subject to becoming "appropriate technology" for rural residents who are more interested in these commodities for cooking fuel, house construction and resale on the copper market. POTS are also costly to maintain in the face of the environmental destruction of severe storms and lightening strikes.

    Given available information on technical options, it is possible to envision a "wireless weave" to lessen the gaps in rural telecommunication coverage in Africa. This wireless weave might make use of a combination of land-based infrastructure (copper and fibre optic cables), particularly at the community level, between regions, and in some cases for international traffic, together with technologies such as "very small aperture terminals" (VSAT) satellite systems, digital cellular phone systems (fixed cellular lines are currently more cost effective than mobile lines), and cheap point-to-multipoint rural radio systems that make use of advances in cellular phone standards.

    But wireless systems are not a panacea. Although they can offer far more rapid roll out times, greater reliability, lower maintenance costs and better security, wireless systems are generally more expensive than cable based systems in more densely populated areas. Aside from the additional equipment which can make wireless systems more costly, a widespread network requires very careful and detailed planning to optimize the use of the available frequencies and skilled technicians are needed to install then. Also they are generally unable to provide the same bandwidth as cable-based systems. Some wavebands are particularly susceptible to weather conditions (rain, temperature, solar interference etc.) and they also generally require a much greater level of coordination to avoid interfering with the activities of others.

    While commercial manufacturing of some wireless systems is, however, rapidly reducing costs and increasing viability, most wireless solutions rely on proprietary hardware and software platforms developed by a particular company - the development of open standards is still at an early stage and so in most cases it is mandatory to use the same company's products at each end of a link. With this sort of limitation in the competitive environment between suppliers and, the great variety in types of connections, equipment and protocols, choosing a system can be difficult, especially as there are few ongoing avenues to improve information exchange.

    Wireless systems based on cellular technologies are already the most popular method of addressing the needs of mobile users, and even fixed users, where the local telecommunication infrastructure is poor. As a result, over 35 countries in Africa have a cellular telephone service. South Africa was at one stage the fastest growing cellular market in the world, and now has about 1 000 000 users. The development of low cost "fixed wireless loops" based on mobile cellular technology is already enabling people in rural Kenya to have access to fully digital telephone service. Fixed wireless loop technology is reducing installed line costs to as little as US$500 per line for a small rural exchange with 100 to 200 users. Even rural payphones at US$3 000 each are attractive to PTOs that can achieve revenues of as little as US$800 per year in order to establish a four year return-on-investment for their capital costs. Multilateral financial institutions such as the World Bank are able to make such investments attractive to PTOs through the provision of favourable capital cost financing support.

    While the United States and Canada were, until very recently "stuck" paying the mortgages on their early entry and high cost analogue cellular systems, Africa, and indeed most developing countries in South-east Asia, have been able to avoid this problem and have generally adopted the European developed "time division multiple access" (TDMA) based digital cellular standard known as GSM. Cellular services in Africa are generally concentrated in the major cities, but due to their installation along major transport trunk routes, rural areas along the way are also benefiting from the service.

    A new communication standard based on "code division multiple access" (CDMA) techniques may provide even more promise for increasing the bandwidth and lowering the cost of mobile and fixed local loop communications. Equipment can be more densely packed around a single repeater station and bandwidth is even more efficiently used. Large scale implementations of CDMA have yet to occur, largely because of the tremendous investment made in GSM systems which have driven down its costs considerably.

    TDMA based point-to-multipoint digital cellular/radio systems are beginning to find applications in rural areas of Africa where they are used to provide small numbers of digital telephone lines to individual communities and villages. Already these systems are in use in South Africa, Ghana, and Egypt, with a cost per line as low as US$300. Companies such as Granger Telecommunications in the UK, and SR Telecom and Nortel in Canada have reached significant levels of commercial production for these systems, and are able to provide them at very competitive prices to PTOs and private sector telecommunication operators. SR Telecom's point-to- multipoint systems are in wide use as rural telecommunication systems in countries such as Ghana, Peru, Colombia, Mexico, the Philippines, Thailand and Chile, China and India, where they are proving to be reliable and affordable for rural people (

    Point-to-multipoint digital cellular/radio systems are typically installed in groups of towers in "line of sight" to each other, with typical distances of 10 to 30 kilometres between towers. A receiving tower can provide a community with anywhere from 1 to 120 traditional telephone lines, or it can supply a local wireless cellular service with users having base-station receivers or portable phones. In most cases of rural service, communities have either a simple village payphone or a rural "telecentre" that provides pay phone service and sometimes fax and Internet service. Telecentres can be operated by the PTO, or the major private sector service provider, or, depending on national regulatory structures, they can be operated by local entrepreneurs, municipal governments, cooperatives or non-governmental organizations. Often, a telecentre accessible to all in a community is combined with traditional telephone lines connected to local government offices, organizations and some businesses.

    It is possible to combine TDMA point-to-multipoint systems with other technologies to expand rural connectivity. In the Philippines for example, prototype rural PBX systems will soon be ready for commercial production, and will enable rural communities to multiply the benefits of point-to-multipoint digital cellular/radio systems by establishing local calling services with over 100 lines linked to a handful of external lines coming in from a point-to-multipoint system. Like the PBX systems used in many hotels and businesses around the world, these little technical gadgets make use of the principle that many people can be connected to one another locally and to an outside line to the rest of the world, but that only a few will want to access the outside line at any one time.

    Point-to-multipoint systems and fixed wireless loops are fast becoming the technology of choice for rural connectivity, but there are other technical solutions that can be combined with point-to-multipoint systems, or stand alone as technical options for special cases. For example, most of Africa is now covered by a high-powered KU-band satellite footprint, enabling the use of Very Small Aperture Terminal (small satellite dishes ranging from pizza size to kitchen table size) systems. The cost of VSAT equipment for establishing groundstations has dropped to US$10 000 or less for full two-way transmission capabilities. As a connectivity solution for the average rural African, this is clearly out of the question, but when combined with point-to-multipoint systems, this marriage of technology can reach even the most remote rural regions and provide village level phone service at costs that make a positive business case for establishing rural telecommunication systems.

    VSAT offers reasonably high bandwidth (64K-2Mbps) and substantially lower costs than most PTO supplied international leased circuits. However regulatory barriers have stymied most attempts to use this technology so far, except in Ghana, Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique and Zambia, where the telecommunications market has been substantially relaxed. As a result there are three VSAT-based Internet service providers in Kampala (InfoMail and Starcom), two in Ghana (NCS and Africa Online), two in Tanzania (Wilken and Datel) and one each in Zambia (ZamNet) and Mozambique (CIUEM). The UNDP's SDNP project will commission its VSAT based Internet hub in Beira, Mozambique in mid 1998.

    The relatively quick spread of VSAT in liberalized telecommunication markets, compared to the slow spread of VSAT in the rest of Africa points clearly to the effect that liberalized telecommunication markets can have on improving the spread of services and reducing their costs, key factors in the establishment of rural telecommunication services. These same countries (Ghana, Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique and Zambia) are currently on the "hot" market lists for vendors of TDMA point-to-multipoint and fixed wireless loop rural telecommunication equipment vendors.

    Another interesting technology for rural telecommunication service are Wideband/Spread Spectrum Packet Radio and Wireless Local Area Networks (LANS). Wi-LAN of Canada has developed a range of high speed wireless bridges and modems aimed at Internet Service Providers and expects to provide such a system for greater Kinshasa. The Wi-LAN "Hopper Plus" ethernet bridge approaches 1.5Mbps speeds at up to 3km in urban areas and 10km with line of sight antennas and rural conditions. New versions are reaching speeds of 20Mbps. The Hopper wireless modems transmit up 38.8 Kbits/sec with similar lengths of transmission. While these systems are primarily designed as Internet and digital data exchange tools, their digital design can enable voice communication as well. The South African Council for Science and Industrial Research (CSIR) has developed a package using the WaveLan product, which provides a cellular metropolitan area managed data network. A four station hub router and equipment for four sub-stations running at 2Mbps costs about US$20 000. Regulations have prevented its use within South Africa, but it is currently installed at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, and at the Centre Informatica, Universidade Eduardo Mondlane (CIUEM) in Mozambique.

    In some countries where PTOs provide poor service to urban areas, and where regulatory systems have not caught up with new technologies, Wireless Local Area Networks combined with VSAT systems provide coalitions of businesses with a means for bypassing antique phone systems for both data and voice communication. In Haiti, for example, the main Internet service provider in Port au Prince uses a wireless LAN to create what amounts to a telecommunication system that bypasses the poorer service offered by Teleco Haiti. While expensive and directed primarily to businesses, this service is gaining popularity with individual household customers. As this technology spreads, costs are decreasing, and it may not be long before we see viable pricing for rural service.

    In African countries, as has happened in Canada, the United States, Europe and Australia, advances in Internet use in urban areas are drawing increased attention to low teledensity rates and poor infrastructure in rural areas. Cross-sectoral and continent-wide working groups have been established to enhance both Internet access and improve overall telecommunication performance in Africa, and many of these working groups are focusing new attention on rural telecommunication problems.

    Of the more important recent events which have helped to accelerate connectivity in Africa was the Addis Symposium on telematics for development in April 1995. Africa's largest-ever gathering of computer and telecom experts, it brought together over 250 people comprising representatives from 38 African countries, 31 different African PTOs, or Telecom ministries, and almost all of the major forces in International computer networking development projects. The recommendations it produced stimulated the subsequent Conference of African Ministers responsible for planning to instruct the UN Economic Commission for Africa to set up a "high-level working group" to chart Africa's path onto the information highway. Hosted by the Egyptian Cabinet Information and Decision Support Centre in Cairo and supported by UNESCO, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), the expert group developed a framework document entitled the "African Information Society Initiative" (AISI), which was adopted at the following meeting of the Conference of African Ministers.

    The subsequent Information Society and Development Conference (ISAD) held in Johannesburg in May 1996 heightened awareness of the issues, and also strengthened the developing countries' role in the development of the Global Information Society. However, the conference also served to point out how far behind the countries of the South were in being able to exploit the potential benefits of improved use of ICTs, stimulating many to call for drastic measures.

    In November 1995 a collaboration between BellaNet, UNESCO, IDRC, UNECA and ITU called the African Network Initiative (ANI) conducted a study on future information infrastructure building activities in Africa. It identified a substantial number of ICT related development projects being planned or in process in Africa. Of these, the potentially most influential activities with regard to rural telecommunication services are:

    It will be many years before rural people throughout Africa have a reasonable level of access to basic telephone services. Advances in wireless technologies, and related reductions in infrastructure costs, point to a future rural Africa with a weave of various wireless telecommunication services. In the short term, we will see specific countries and specific regions, especially where telecommunication markets are liberalizing, establishing wireless systems that can help close the gap between rural and urban service levels. Hopefully, these examples and the lessons learned in establishing local rural telecentres will be shared among PTOs, international donor agencies and all who have a stake in rural telecommunication service. The need to draw attention to the pathetically low teledensity levels in rural Africa is paramount, and the concurrent needs for information gathering and information sharing are far from being met. For now, the "information have-nots" in most of rural Africa are destined to remain outsiders in the "Global Information Infrastructure."


    1. The majority of these countries have achieved live Internet public access services in the capital cities of countries such as Algeria, Angola, Central African Republic, Benin, Côte d'Ivoire, Madagascar, Mauritius, Morocco, Tanzania, Tunisia, ERgypt, Senegal, Ghana, Uganda, Kenya, Swaziland, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Mozambique and of course South Africa, which is among the top 20 countries in the world when ranked by number of Internet nodes.

    2. For the most current summary of Internet access across Africa, refer to Mike Jensen's African Connectivity web page at

    3. There appears to be substantial room for increased donor activity and donor collaboration to develop rural telecommunication projects with partners such as FAO, the World Bank, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the Centre for Technology in Agriculture (CTA), the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), and various national bilateral development agencies such as the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA).

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