Why FWA will be a game-changer for Sub-Saharan connectivity

29 September 2021 | Wim van Thillo

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Wim van Thillo

Blog Author | Guest contributor

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While many believe satellite and fibre will save the day for unconnected Africa, Wim van Thillo, CEO and co-founder at Pharrowtech, has another suggestion

For people to participate in an increasingly digital world, they need a reliable connection. They can own an iPhone 13 Pro, but without a network, whether through Wifi or SIM card, Apple’s latest phone is not much more useful than an original Nokia 3310.

It’s no wonder then that ensuring quality, secure connections is a major focus for governments and world organisations. UNESCO and the ITU Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development have set a target of connecting 75% of the world’s population to high-speed internet by 2025, with a stated aim of connecting everyone, everywhere. That implies targeting the populations of developing countries, as they are the most vulnerable to being unconnected.

In Sub-Saharan Africa data from the World Bank estimates that 29% of the region's population use the internet, compared to 86% of those in Europe and Central Asia, and 57% of the world.

Providing a high-speed internet connection will help accelerate the region’s development, it’s as simple as that. The reverse is also true – without the right connectivity, any hope of giving the people of Sub-Saharan Africa a better quality of life will diminish. The question is, how do we achieve this?

Fibre fails

Trying to replicate the rollout of broadband in Europe won’t work. Firstly, most of Africa (including the Sub-Sahara) doesn’t have the legacy infrastructure that many European countries have. So where the likes of the UK, France and Germany are switching off copper and public switch telephone networks as they move to fibre and IP telephony, there’s much less of that in place in Sub-Saharan Africa.

While a greenfield telecom landscape can be beneficial, such as by enabling the design and implementation of networks that meet the needs of next generation technology, it also means that much of the support (whether that’s physical hardware like telephone poles, pipes for underground cabling, or knowledge of maintaining networks) is non-existent.

That’s before we consider that, while fibre can deliver super-fast broadband, it is not the silver bullet to all network issues. The high cost of deployment leaves many operators struggling to recoup capital expenditure outside of major urban areas, while the installation itself requires significant environment disruption. The physical hardware also makes it susceptible to environmental disruption, particularly when trying to connect over challenging topography such as mountains and valleys.

These aren’t issues specific to fibre deployment in Sub-Saharan Africa, however; these are challenges faced when trying to deploy fibre anywhere in the world. We only have to look at rural fibre coverage in the UK, for example, and how much of it is facilitated by community groups rather than major providers, to see that the technology’s deployment can be a stumbling block, no matter how developed a country is perceived to be.

A wireless window of opportunity

What, then, is the solution? One opportunity may lie in Fixed Wireless Access (FWA).

This might seem a strange choice if we consider the traditional limits of FWA, where it struggled to match the performance of wired internet. At a time when we are looking for solutions to help ultimately improve social mobility and give people a route out of poverty, suggesting that they use an approach to network connectivity that was once considered inferior is unlikely to help accelerate any development in Sub-Saharan Africa.

However, times have changed and technology has evolved, and FWA does have a number of benefits that make it an attractive option. It can be deployed rapidly and with minimal environmental disruption, unlike fibre, and it offers far higher throughput and lower latency than satellite internet. It is also significantly more cost effective than both fibre and satellite internet, as it can utilise unlicensed frequency bands, and there is no need for large-scale physical infrastructure, reducing the need for major upfront investment.

A two-way street

That said, the main reason that FWA is now a viable alternative to fibre or satellite internet is the increasing emergence of 5G. While current mobile network technology simply isn’t competitive when it comes to the download speeds or latency levels of a modern fibre broadband connection, the next phase of FWA will draw upon 5G network technology to considerably boost its overall performance.

What’s more, the benefits are not one-sided. FWA actually provides operators with an early 5G use case and reason for investment in Sub-Saharan Africa. With much of the demand for 5G determined by market readiness, the region appears to be well behind the likes of the US, Europe and Asia-Pacific when it comes to being set for 5G deployment. However, with FWA offering a way to connect more people than ever before when combined with 5G, the attractiveness of using 5G FWA increases for operators.

FWA game changer

Unique challenges require new approaches. Simply trying to replicate what’s working elsewhere is unlikely to be successful if the conditions are different, and Sub-Saharan Africa is very different to Europe or the USA, where fibre could be rolled out (to an extent) on legacy infrastructure. The emergence of 5G, coupled with the established use of FWA, could prove the game changer operators need to grow their customer bases in a region with significant connection potential.