Tuesday , January 18 2022

Connecting Rural Africa the World Telecom Labs Way

Satya Mekala is the Director, World Telecom Labs, a mobile infrastructure provider that develops the Vivada range of small cell solutions, and a range of connectivity platforms. 

Hailing from Belgium, with over 12 Years in Nigeria, WTL has played a major role in the adoption of VoIP and improving Nigeria’s telecom infrastructure backbone.

Satya was the first Managing Director of World Telecom Labs and during his tenure, grew the company to a valuation of $120 Million.

He has over 20 years’ experience in IT and the communications industry mostly at senior Management or Director level.

In this exclusive interview with BUKOLA OLANREWAJU, Satya highlighted how Nigeria is the best market zone for innovative telecom business and how Nigeria must provide good regulatory framework  for rural digitalization.

From your experience, how sustainable is rural connectivity in Nigeria? 

In September 2019, a new report issued by the ITU-UNESCO-founded Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development said that traditional approaches to improving internet network roll-out and uptake are failing to reach the estimated 3.7 billion people still living and working in areas with no network coverage.

The report calls for new collaborative strategies to help including a greater emphasis on resource sharing and treating broadband as a basic public utility.

For those of us building networks in Nigeria – and Africa –  this report comes as no surprise.  Even with the involvement and interest of titans like Facebook and Google, connecting the unconnected is as big a challenge as it has always been. The problems remain the same: capital-intensive infrastructure and low ARPUs make many rural deployments commercially unviable.

However, I firmly believe that in Nigeria rural communities can be connected profitably because for most people they would be happy with a 2G network for phone calls only. 44% of the Nigerian population don’t use the telephone and, to be honest, outside Lagos there is no good connectivity.

2G networks are the fastest and cheapest way to provide the voice connectivity that so many people want and need so they can speak with their loved ones who have moved away.

However, in order to build sustainable voice and data networks in Nigeria, we would like to see the Nigerian Communication Commission (NCC) concentrate on building open wholesale networks– and to allow open access to all existing Government-owned or sponsored telecom infrastructure. The removal of the CAPEX cost of building a rural network will enable NCC to pressure previously reluctant operators to start offering services in these areas.

Indeed pressure might not even be needed. For-profit telcos are naturally competitive beasts and will not want to see their rivals scooping up rural customers. Pricing and customer service will, as ever, be the key differentiators.

You once proposed a “use it or lose it spectrum” for Nigeria. What is the rationale behind this and how will this promote connectivity in Nigeria? 

Nationwide Licenses have been given to only four or five operators in Nigeria.  Spectrum is the basic foundation of communication and in the rural areas where networks haven’t been built, then NCC needs to force Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) to release the spectrum to enable the building of wholesale networks – or so it can be reassigned to a smaller operator who will build

In Nigeria we really need different operating models, different licensing and different funding sources to help the industry move forward.  We need regulators and MNOs with the political and commercial commitment that is needed to move forward in building rural networks. We are working with all of our friends and contacts across the Nigerian ecosystem to achieve this.

How affordable are World Telecom Labs solutions? 

WTL has deployments in more than 30 countries in Africa with a well-deserved reputation for excellent service, reliable products and an expert team with extensive experience in Africa.

We are working hard to provide low-cost, low-power small cells that can be deployed easily in remote locations. One innovative approach we have taken is to offer our C3 rural communication hub. This changes the model by not trying to cover the whole rural landscape – which may be very expensive for minimal reward – but offers a central point for the local population to access voice, data and power provision.

What are the sustainability provisions made available for this?

World Telecom Labs is focused on helping operators to build commercially sustainable networks in rural and semi-rural areas.

We have worked on reducing the ongoing monthly operating costs of a site. For example, by reducing the power needed and allowing it to be supplied by solar not by diesel generators.

We also think that greater attention has to be given to the revenue side of the equation. That is why we have included elements like cyber cafés, money transfer and pre-paid payphones in our rural solutions.

We do not presume that phone calls and browsing from handsets will be enough on its own to make the business case sustainable.

From your experience of connecting the rural communities, what is the state of telecommunications in Nigeria when compared with other Africa countries?

Most Nigerians don’t have telephones; actually, it is a disconnected country. This isn’t right.  Nigeria’s huge population means that is should be attractive as a place to do business.

ALSO READ: Nigeria, best for Telecom Business – World Telecom Labs

It’s very unfortunate that in the last three years, the Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in Nigerian telecoms has dropped dramatically beyond 80%.

There are people who have the money to invest. They just need proper regulation and a more stable Naira to convince them to move forward.  But fortunately we are seeing progress.

Personally I love working in Nigeria and plan to be hear building networks for a long time to come.

About Bukola Olanrewaju

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