FWA: The answer to the connectivity challenge in sub-Saharan Africa

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Telecoms.com periodically invites third party experts to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this article, Wim van Thillo, CEO and co-founder of Pharrowtech, talks about the merits of fixed wireless access to connect the unconnected.

To be part of the world’s increasingly digital economy, individuals and businesses need reliable high-speed Internet access. The latest smartphone or tablet can be a great gadget, but without connectivity it won’t have a significant impact on anyone’s life.

Global organizations and national governments around the world know this and are working with the private sector to improve access to gigabit broadband. Indeed, UNESCO and the ITU Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development have set themselves the goal of connecting 75% of the world’s population to broadband Internet by 2025. To achieve this ambitious goal, but not impossible, developing countries will have to be an area of ​​concentration.

One of the regions with the lowest broadband internet access is sub-Saharan Africa, where only 29% of the population uses the internet, let alone gigabit broadband. This is compared to 57% of the world’s population and 86% of those in Europe and Central Asia.

The difference between these numbers is stark and has a negative economic impact on sub-Saharan Africa – a region that is home to many of the world’s least developed countries. Extensive, reliable and high-speed connectivity is vital to supporting economic growth and development. Without it, the region will simply not have access to the same opportunities as the others.

So the question is, How? ‘Or’ What do we solve this challenge?

Fiber failure

There is no doubt that European fiber deployments in densely populated urban areas have generally been successful. That said, this is simply not an approach that could be replicated in sub-Saharan Africa, for several reasons.

First, sub-Saharan Africa does not have a legacy internet infrastructure that can be upgraded. While a pristine connectivity landscape has its advantages, such as designing and deploying next-generation and even future-oriented networks, the obvious downside is the lack of hardware in place that can be upgraded, such as pipes for underground wiring.

This ties in with the second challenge, which is the extremely high cost of fiber deployments. This is of course exacerbated if there is no existing infrastructure in place, and this is one of the main reasons why global fiber optic deployments to date have been largely concentrated in densely populated cities. .

Third, environmental considerations. Fiber is disruptive to deploy, due to the need to lay cables underground that reach individual homes and businesses. This can be extremely disruptive and can have a negative impact on the natural environment. In addition, the fiber is not particularly well suited for deployments in areas with difficult topography such as mountains, valleys and rivers.

Fundamentally, fiber is not a panacea for global connectivity challenges. Satellite internet has also been proposed as a way to bring sub-Saharan Africa online, but due to its low speed and high latency it is not a viable long-term solution.

A silver bullet

Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) is a technology that could be the solution to many, if not all, of these challenges. Just five years ago this suggestion could have been rejected, but the technology has evolved in leaps and bounds and is now a very attractive option.

Specifically, not only can FWA now provide connectivity with bandwidth and latency comparable to fiber, but it can also be deployed quickly and at a much lower cost, as no large-scale physical infrastructure is required. It also means that any environmental impact is significantly lower than that of fiber deployment.

Additionally, FWA can use unlicensed 5G frequency bands for connectivity. Indeed, one of the main reasons why FWA is now a viable alternative to fiber optic internet is 5G. The possibility of using unlicensed bands reduces the barrier to ISP participation and thus can increase competition in the market, thereby helping to keep costs low for consumers, which is crucial in developing economies.

While 4G connectivity is suitable for a myriad of mobile and smartphone use cases, it is not suitable for reliable streaming, video conferencing, or other high bandwidth tasks. 5G is; it’s more than the next iteration of mobile connectivity. It will transform the way people live and work in the world. The combination of 5G and FWA will be the miracle solution to connect everyone, everywhere, to high speed internet.

Towards a more connected world

Specific problems require specific solutions, and the connectivity challenges of sub-Saharan Africa cannot be solved with a European approach. While urban fiber deployments in Western Europe have given many people access to gigabit broadband for the first time, it is simply not the best tool to give citizens the same access to broadband connectivity. Africans.

FWA and 5G, deployed in combination, are that specific solution for deploying fast and reliable internet at low cost in difficult terrain – and supporting the economic development of sub-Saharan Africa.

Wim has over 15 years of mmWave R&D focused experience, first as a researcher and later as a program director for imec’s activities in cellular transceivers, WiFi and mmWave. In this role, he was instrumental in shaping the R&D roadmap and business opportunities for emerging wireless technologies. Wim was also a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley, specializing in high-speed 60 GHz wireless communications research. He holds a doctorate in electrical engineering and a diploma in business economics from the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven.


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