Thursday, 16 February 2012

Basic challenges for infrastructure in Africa

The obvious notes about remote locations, difficult transport routes and unreliable electricity are just the tip of the iceberg. MNOs in many parts of Africa face other problems.
Broadly speaking, the problems that operators face in Africa are well documented: large distances to be covered, unreliable road and rail transport, low per-capita policing ratios, occasionally extreme weather conditions and socio-economic factors that drive high crime rates.
Whereas this looks like a toxic cocktail for high-tech operations, it can be – and has been – dealt with in very practical ways by all MNOs across the region. Beyond that, however, it raises a question regarding what was previously called “appropriate technology” for Africa and the answer to that question might well be a signpost for the future.
Setting up a network of towers in remote areas of Africa is more daunting than in developed countries. Maintaining those towers then proves an even greater challenge. Even in urban areas, there are issues that are proportionally heavier overhead than elsewhere in the world: electricity, fuel, weather damage and theft.
On a simple business level, this means the costings and risk analysis for projects in Africa are more carefully considered. Startup costs remain higher, despite possibly lower costs for labour and basic materials.
Maintenance costs are the devil in the detail. MTN, the South African operator that holds significant slices of the market in many countries on the continent – 21 in all, including Middle East operations – reports that a generator is stolen every day, on average. That does not even include other damage such as cable theft or weather events. Nor does this cover the high costs of diesel fuel supplies and the negative environmental impact.
While the inflated maintenance costs can be dealt with on paper by adjusting the ratio of capex to opex, the fact remains that increased costs anywhere in the books run counter to providing low-cost, mass-market GSM access for Africa’s huge and often widely distributed population.
This has driven innovative approaches that are in the nice-to-have category in other parts of the world but practically a priority in Africa.
Taking MTN as one example, that company has been running pilot projects to power base stations in remote parts of South Africa using both solar and wind power. Building on that experience, MTN Cameroon has a project running to equip its towers with solar panels provided by ZTE. Typical of Chinese leadership in green technologies and a cautious approach, these installations are mounted with “theft-proof” screws on frames that are 3.5 metres high. It’s not just generators that get stolen. There is a market somewhere for practically anything.
Cynics will note that even such provisions might not be enough. But the present reports indicate that there have not been any problems thus far and MTN’s operating expenses are reduced.
By comparison, Airtel has also been active in exploring solar power, being currently engaged in a project to provide over 20,000 towers in India with panels. There is a reasonable expectation that this will be expanded to Airtel’s operations in other locations as it proves its value.
The advantages are not quite as prosaic as they might seem. There are few studies yet available for the solar initiatives in Africa but we can look at figures from India as a guideline. Greenpeace India reports that some 60 percent of power used by GSM towers in that country is actually provided by diesel generators. That is, as with Africa, thanks to remote locations and unreliable grid supply. Greenpeace claims a potential cost saving of 300 percent for operators over a 10-year time frame if they convert to solar.
Even without that saving being a proven figure, what we do know is that Indian MNOs are using something like three billion litres of diesel a year, producing some five million tons of carbon dioxide. And, of course, that is a huge fuel bill compared to grid power and “free” solar power, quite apart from the environmental impact.
While wind power might be an option in some specific locations, the advantage to solar is that Africa is generally well supplied with enough sunshine to avoid the power interruptions experienced with such installations in countries outside the tropics. The same applies to other less consistent renewables, such as wave or hydro-electric power sources. Solar still works better.
Looking ahead, it seems inevitable that MNOs across Africa will turn to solar. This is driven not just by green concerns and the need for being responsible corporate citizens but also by significant savings in running costs, including reduced risk of equipment theft.
A further predication that seems high-probability is that it will often be companies from Shenzen providing the necessary technology. China’s forward-looking approach on all things green and its own interests in Africa’s resources and developing markets practically guarantee that.
There is another aspect to operations in Africa worth noting. The same challenges that face operators also affect their customers. Obviously, if customers face problems with electricity, that is not good for business.
This issue is not yet being addressed with the same urgency as is seen with power supplies for base stations but there are signs that point to increased interest in this area.
There have been pilot projects across Africa for many years to provide rural communities with domestic solar power and ICT equipment and radios that work from manually wound generators. These have mainly been the province of charities and NGOs.
More recently, Nokia has gone ahead with its bicycle power charger. That product has been a success in developed countries where it has been adopted for reasons of convenience and green awareness. In Africa, it is even more useful, as so many people use bicycles but do not have access to grid power. It has been welcomed in the Great Lakes countries already, where it sells for more affordable prices than in the EU. Even for the lowest-income communities, the advantages are compelling. It provides power for handsets on the spot, eliminating the need to travel to find electricity.
Finally, while it would be no surprise that companies from India, China and South Africa are leading the charge, it is Africa that might well be the proof of concept for much wider adoption of renewable energy for mobile services at both a corporate and consumer level.
This article has been contributed by Roy Johnson, a writer specialising in IT and business topics, who has regularly contributed to PC Magazine, as well as editing TechNet Magazine for Microsoft. Roy was formerly editor of CommsAfrica and contributing editor for Intelligence magazine.

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