Scale up mobile signals at grassroots

A lady uses a phone. FILE PHOTO | NMG
A lady uses a phone. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

As queues fill every Airtel outlet switching mobile numbers away from Safaricom #ticker:SCOM in the race to protest at political exclusion, which of those protesters considers the people who do not have any choice on phone signal, because they simply are without any options at all?

For exclusion, truly, goes beyond acts of commission and is most often marked by simple carelessness and lack of attention to the needs of all.

And when it comes to the vast majority of Kenya’s landmass, it is inhabited by Kenyans who still entirely lack phone signal to this day.
Nor is it the case that it just hasn’t been noticed as a handicap of the first order.

Eight years ago, in 2009, and then with a second law in 2010, a levy was placed on all our telcos taking half a per cent of their revenues and placing it in a Universal Access Fund run by the Communications Authority of Kenya (CAK).

The purpose of that fund had some knobs and bells on it, like adding tech facilities in schools, but its core function was to get phone signal to the country’s predominance of sparsely populated areas.

As it is, mobile telephony is far cheaper to spread than land lines used to be, but it still costs to put in signal, requiring the set up and powering of a beacon.

Commercial telcos are driven in adding those beacons by the cost of that set up, versus the amount of signal they will actually sell and add for that investment cost.

So our government stepped in, all those many years ago, with the intent of adding signal to those who were without.

They collected money, lots of it. By April 2016, a full year and a half ago, and without a single new beacon placed anywhere for any Kenya living without phone access by that time, the Universal Access Fund had collected nearly Sh4 billion, all sat in government coffers.

At that point, the CAK finally declared its intention to spend just Sh1.5 billion of that amount on getting signal to areas like Turkana and Marsabit.

Strangely, to this day, its declared projects do not include a single beacon for such signal. Its public notices do not include a single announcement of new signal. Its tenders do not span anything that is definitely for such new signal. But maybe it has added some signal somewhere.

Maybe it just isn’t so strong at communicating its achievements in delivering on its core purpose with that ever mounting cash mountain. And really, behind the scenes, and eight years onwards, maybe it has actually achieved a Kenyan with phone signal who wouldn’t have had it if it weren’t for the Universal Access Fund.

Or maybe that delivery is not a state secret and we still haven’t crossed that stage post of a first Kenyan added with the Sh4bn, plus now much more, of levy.

Either way, as a people, and as a country, we continue to pay the price for our sketchy communications infrastructure. Driving for miles across Turkana, even in communities with hundreds gathered, all of life still happens off the grid of 21st century communication.

We struggle to run an election across these disconnected communities, but every day we choose not to look at the ongoing humanitarian consequences too.

It’s one thing to be excluded from government, but what of the woman who today will miscarry, 30 miles from a clinic, and without a phone in sight, no hope of blood, or medical care: with someone literally needing to walk for a day to even communicate that she is in trouble.

Or the children who will die today who could have been so easily saved with one call to a health worker with a car and antibiotics.

And beyond all the deaths, what opportunities do we think those Kenyans deserve, in education, and in livelihoods?

Whoever it is that we deem as controlling the Universal Access Fund, maybe one small thought, regardless of ethnicity, is that it’s time to put in some universal access, even for three people, even just a single piece of it, and then add more, with all that vast accumulation of money.