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Columnists

Sharing infrastructure will cut costs

Bitange Ndemo
Bitange Ndemo  NATION MEDIA GROUP

On November 17, 2014, a news feed by a technology journalist, Caleb Henry, reported that the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is planning to create a First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), and develop a national broadband network prioritised for emergencies and public safety.

The US government intends to provide interoperable communications services through FirstNet using nationwide 700 MHz spectrum (mostly used by commercial operators) as a new broadband strategy for emergency services.

The law that created FirstNet demands that the network’s minimum technical requirements are based on the commercial standards for Long Term Evolution (LTE) service.

Terrestrial connectivity will make up the majority of FirstNet, but mandates for connectivity in unreached places will likely necessitate that satellite play a role.

This departure from the past when security networks were confined to expensive 300 – 400 MHz spectrum would persuade other nations especially developing countries to start deploying security systems on cheaper commercial spectrum.

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The report further says that the US Congress allocated up to $7 billion to make sure all 50 states and six US territories have a Radio Access Network (RAN) that taps into FirstNet’s core network.

Congress further directed FirstNet is to seek ways to best use existing telecommunications infrastructure, including through public-private partnerships (PPP).

Satellite industry companies have already begun evaluating what role they might play in FirstNet’s development especially in areas where the terrestrial network may not cover.

These are ground breaking decisions that the Congress made because developing countries often build expensive independent networks that often turn out to be unnecessarily very expensive.

It was through Public PPPs that Kenya built its undersea fibre optic cable, TEAMs that was key in driving down the cost of broadband in Kenya. However, there are still unfinished business relating to access to broadband.

The 2013 Alliance for Affordable Internet report looked at the true cost of broadband for the millions of people who live on less than $2 per day and the results were not surprising, but they were sobering.

For those living on less than $2 a day, entry-level broadband costs an average of 40 per cent of monthly income, and in many countries this figure exceeds 80 per cent or 100 per cent. Price is the main problem in accessing broadband.

Kenya’s broadband penetration of 47 per cent is at the threshold of poverty line. If we need more Kenyans to access broadband, we must do something about pricing.

It is for this reason that the news from the US become important and a great example for Kenya to emulate, especially on the infrastructure sharing.

Kenya needs multiple strategies to lower the cost of broadband including sharing of all forms of laying fibre optics to homes in major cities as well as towers.

At a recent Commonwealth conference in Safari Park, participants were in agreement that the issue of infrastructure sharing must be resolved if we need to ensure broadband access to all citizens.

Although our broadband strategy targets to increase access, drive down prices and stimulate relevant local content, there is need to do more even though Kenya has become one of the most connected countries in Africa. To drive the cost down. We must mandate shared infrastructure.

It is the push for such policies that made Kenya to have the largest amount of international bandwidth per user in Africa, with 24 kbit/s per user; followed by South Africa at 19 kbits/s.

Her broadband penetration as well as that of Africa has risen dramatically, but still lags far behind the rest of the world. The gains made with respect to broadband penetration are being threatened by punitive tax policies on telecommunications.

Like the US Congress, our Parliament must step in and legislate infrastructure sharing for both public and private investments. The savings from shared infrastructure would be sufficient to ensure 100 per cent coverage of the country through a combination of technologies.

The same infrastructure, especially satellite, can be used to deliver television signals to areas where terrestrial network is not available.

This will herald the most comprehensive and inclusive development at an affordable cost, which can never be attained when we allow operators to use infrastructure as a competitive advantage.

Further, the government would leverage on the infrastructure to provide emergency response services to places that have never seen such service before.

Robert Green Ingersoll said: “It is a thousand times better to have common sense without education than to have education without common sense.”

Dr Ndemo is a senior lecturer, University of Nairobi, and a former permanent secretary, Ministry of Information and Communication.

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