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Connecting Kenya to better voice, broadband technology

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Over the past eighteen years, Kenya has seen a technological revolution that has changed the way millions of people communicate, interact and do business. In any given instance, the biggest contributor to this phenomenon has been mobile telephony.

Today, Kenyans have limitless options on what they can achieve from the comfort of their mobile phones. The advent of mobile telephony has brought people from nearly all parts of the country into the global digital village.

Nonetheless, there are certain parts of the country that have remained without broadband and mobile connectivity. This means that hundreds of thousands of Kenyans have remained unable to access mobile connectivity. They have also remained locked out of the digital world, digital solutions and advancement. But this state of affairs is now changing, one connection at a time.

It all started with the Universal Service Fund (USF) kitty, which aims to bridge the disconnection gap. “The Universal Service Fund was created by the Communications Authority of Kenya in a bid to support widespread access to information, communication and technology services,” says Geoffrey Mogoya, a telecommunications expert based in Nairobi. When the fund was founded in 2016, 5,655 sub-locations in the country had 100 per cent connectivity, 418 had less than 50 per cent connectivity, while 166 had zero connectivity. At the time, 60 per cent of the population was not connected to high speed internet.

In 2017, the Communications Authority set aside the first batch of funds for the development of connectivity infrastructure. “The authority set aside Sh. 1.5 billion for the implementation of USF projects and advertised tenders for infrastructure projects worth Sh. 1 billion,” says Evelyne Mueni, an IT consultant based in Nairobi. Then Safaricom successfully applied for the tenders and started rolling out the requisite voice and broadband infrastructure.

In January this year, Safaricom won a fresh USF tender worth Sh. 888 million from the Communications Authority of Kenya (CA) to construct additional base transceiver stations (BTS). The transceiver stations are aimed at improving network connectivity in 78 remote sub-locations in Kenya. The remote areas are mainly in Kwale County, Turkana County, Garissa County, and Wajir County. None the least, through a partnership with the Communications Authority, Safaricom was also been mandated to build network receivers in Bungoma, kajiado, West Pokot, Kilifi and Naroka areas.

Since bagging the tender, Safaricom has constructed over 37 stations out of the designated 48 base transceiver stations. “This partnership has heralded a new phase of growth for local voice connectivity and traffic,” says Ms. Mueni.  For example, according to the CA data, the value of voice traffic within and across networks was 14.374 billion in the quarter ending September 2018. This represented a 29.88 per cent increase from similar quarter in 2017.

George Nyabuga, a lecturer at the University of Nairobi also says that as part of the USF program, Safaricom has been working towards closing the 2G gap around the country. “The 2G Gap initiative is aimed at ensuring that there is mobile voice and data coverage in even the most inaccessible and isolated areas,” he says. Strikingly, the bridging of the 2G gap comes at a time when Safaricom is also rolling out its 4G network across the country. According to financial analyst Patrick Kibet, this speaks of how a business dedicated to business development through infrastructural investments. “The launching of the LTE Advanced (4G) proposition in the country made Safaricom the first operator in sub-Saharan Africa to launch the 4G technology,” he says.

Nonetheless, the 4G milestone has not kept Safaricom away from reaching out to areas that have enjoyed little or zero connectivity. “The direct impact of data on our economy has already been noted through the increasing number of businesses and services offered online. With 4G and a generally improved broadband connectivity, we can deliver revolutionary services like tele-medicine, virtualization or real-time video that have immediate and transformational impact on our society,” said Safaricom chief executive officer Bob Collymore during the launch.

Interestingly, though, the new base transceivers are not only boosting an increase in voice connectivity but also data. So far, Safaricom’s infrastructural development has seen an upward growth in the number of Kenyans who can access the internet.  For example, in year 2000, only 200,000 Kenyans out of a population of 30 million had access to the internet. By the end of 2017, 43 million Kenyans out of an estimated population of 48 million had access to the internet. This growth has also seen Kenya overtake Nigeria in the global top position in the share of internet traffic coming from mobile phones. Kenya currently has 83 per cent of mobile traffic against Nigeria’s 81 per cent.

Ironically, despite the breaking of these new grounds and continuous dedication to improve its business and infrastructural offering by Safaricom, other market players have largely remained inactive. For example, when the Communications Authority advertised for the base transceivers, Safaricom’s closest rival did not tender. According to Mr. Kibet, such inaction casts complaints on market domination and requests for shared infrastructure as attempts to reap where one has not sowed. “Every competitive and profitable business is constantly seeking to innovate and provide solutions by going out of its way in search of new markets,” he says. “Safaricom will continue to set the business agenda and hit fresh milestones by making such pursuits.”

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