Saturday 21 September 2019

MTN: Connecting Rural Africa

I wrote about MTN on the Small Cells Blog last year, where Babak Fouladi, Technology and Information System (Group CTIO) at MTN delivered an insightful talk. In addition to providing a lot of valuable insights on how they plan to tackle rural connectivity, they talked about their RFP for Rural, Ultra-rural and Ultra-ultra-rural sites.

In the latest TowerXchange, Navindran Naidoo, Group Executive, Network Design & Planning, MTN Group explained this and a lot of other details. The article is available here. I will just look at what he said specifically about this RFP below:

The RFP is an attempt to source full turnkey vendors for our different categories: rural, ultra-rural and ultra-ultra rural. The RFP should close in September. 

We are interested in the role that independent telecom tower companies (towercos) can play in enhancing rural connectivity. Leasing space on towers could be an important enabler of investment in rural and ultra-rural areas. However, the leasing model is unlikely to be operable in ultra-ultra rural areas where low ARPUs will be unable to support more than one operator. Sharing infrastructure is an option for reducing the cost of roll-out and opex too. 

I cannot comment on how the pricing structure and economics of the sites will work, as we are waiting to see what is proposed in the responses to our RFP.

There are a few ways we identify and categorise sites, such as determining the distance from the urban areas we already serve. We can use satellite imagery to complement that and identify the best areas to serve, as we cannot rely on census information in these areas. 

For backhaul we expect to use a variety of technologies. In rural sites we have specified microwave backhaul as these sites should not be too far away from our existing network. For ultra-ultra-rural sites, we have specified optimised Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) backhaul. Ultra-rural sites will see a mixture of the two solutions. 

The towers will also differ from site to site. At normal rural sites, shareable macro towers will be used; at ultra-rural sites we expect shorter towers of between 10m and 20m. While at ultra-ultra rural sites, we are leaving the details of the structure to our vendors to propose depending on what they think will work best.

We don’t only need sites which have a low-cost bill of materials, but we need structures with minimal maintenance and a quick implementation timeline. It should take up to a week to erect a rural site, but our ultra-ultra rural sites should be complete in a day or two. 

Site availability will differ to what we expect for our core sites. At rural sites we are proposing > 98% availability; at ultra-rural sites > 95%; and we will wait to see what our vendors propose for ultra-ultra rural sites. At these most rural sites we need to keep maintenance and repair visits to a minimum, so while we expect to use solar power and battery back-ups at our rural and ultra-rural sites, we may opt for solar-only sites at our most remote sites. Eliminating diesel generators cuts maintenance and refuelling, cutting batteries from our most remote sites further simplifies the maintenance of the sites and eliminates sites going down due to battery theft. 

Most rural sites, with their larger towers and more demanding initial specification could be upgraded, but ultra rural and ultra-ultra rural would require complete rebuilds. But that would be an excellent problem to have.

We think offering data and internet connectivity is essential. Even at our ultra-ultra rural sites we want to be able to offer at least 3G levels of connectivity. 

Our CHASE programme helps us focus on what matters for our users: Coverage, Handsets, Affordability, Services and Education. We have to ensure sufficient data coverage in low-income areas; affordability of handsets and data services; bundle together the correct services for our customers; and enhance digital literacy and awareness so that people can make the most of the services we deliver. 

The complete article is here.

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