Making wireless work in Africa

By   |  April 25, 2006

“There is no such thing as the digital divide in Africa,” Bushnet technical director Malcolm Brew told delegates at the African WiMax/CDMA Forum yesterday. “All the technology, like GPRS, is already here. Where there is a divide is in the content that is available to users.”

Bushnet provides wireless connections to users in Uganda, and is widely considered a pioneer in using HF radio-based email services in the region. Brew himself is outspoken on the issue of wireless connections and tends to address issues head on.

“What we are good at is re-purposing technology for local conditions. To date our primary delivery mechanism has been HF radio signals and we have been providing a service similar to WiMax but without the additional costs of WiMax,” says Brew.

The problem with WiMax at its current stage of development, says Brew, is that it is too expensive and requires too much power. “WiMax is not the answer yet. It my be soon, but right now it is also not fast enough or able to broadcast far enough,” he says.

Brew’s position on WiMax, as with many other issues, comes from years working in Uganda providing wireless and technology services. It is a position that lets him see through the hype. And he cautions the industry and regulators to be wary of the pitfalls of over-hyped new technologies. “In the big cities like Johannesburg and Lagos there is enough money to make mistakes; it’s easy to swap out units and fix problems. But in the rural areas you only get one shot at making it work. There isn’t enough money to make mistakes. In most cases there just isn’t any money at all.”

Although a pioneer of wireless communications in Africa Brew rails against the influx of new technologies, such as WiMax, which he believes are not yet good enough for use on the ground. Right now, he says, Bushnet is using HSDN based on the MTN infrastructure to deliver its services and, for now, doing a better job than what WiMax would be doing.

Brew also warns against being prescriptive in deploying technology in Africa. “Rural African users don’t need mobile WiMax. They just need high speed wireless connections. And PCs do not work in rural Africa; too much heat, dust, no electricity.” Which brings us to the nub of Brews position: Broadband wireless access for Africa is key. Putting full-blown PCs into rural Africa is a waste of effort, he says.

Rather stick in thin client terminals that last longer and use high speed, cheap wireless connections to connect to servers in the main centres where they will last longer. It’s an intriguing approach which again underlines the critical value of affordable broadband to Africa. This is where WiMax can play a role in the coming years, says Brew, in making possible wide area networks that use terminals not unlike the Inveneo model.

However, having good connections, says Brew is just one element of the equation, and one that brings him back to the importance of content. “How do you make these installations sustainable? You don’t do it by have a single-vertical approach,” says Brew. “To make them succeed you have to have the three key areas serviced: health, education and financial services.”

Providing services that address all three of these needs is key not only to providing a service that users will use but also to be able to finance the operations. In reality, says Brew, money will not be made off the education services. “So you use the revenue from the financial services to fund them.”

Brew also argues for the more rather than the less approach to broadband. “If you build it they will use it,” he says citing experience of installations where implementors believed users only required a minimum service. “Don’t just provide minimum bandwidth in expectation of what you believe people want.”

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