Friday 20 October 2023

Rwanda got 4G, Satellite Connectivity and Possibly Stratospheric 5G

Rwanda, officially the Republic of Rwanda, is a landlocked country in the Great Rift Valley of Central Africa, where the African Great Lakes region and Southeast Africa converge. Located a few degrees south of the Equator, Rwanda is bordered by Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Rwanda was slow to liberalise the mobile sector, allowing MTN a monopoly until 2006 when the fixed-line incumbent, Rwandatel (since acquired by Liquid Intelligence Technologies) became the second mobile operator. There was effective competition among three operators after Tigo launched services in 2009. However, the acquisition of Tigo by Airtel saw a significant consolidation in the market, and the cancellation of Rwandatel’s licence in 2011 resulted in the market becoming a duopoly between the dominant operator MTN and Airtel. However there is a third operator now: kt Rwanda (KTRN for Korea Telecom Rwanda Networks), which is on 4G/LTE only.

The fixed broadband sector has suffered from limited fixed-line infrastructure and high prices. Nevertheless, operators are rolling out national backbone networks which also allow them to connect to the international submarine cables on Africa’s east coast. These cables gave the entire region greater internet bandwidth and ended the dependency on satellites. Liquid Technologies has continued to expand its FttP services across Kigali and a number of other towns, while the country also has a new cable link with Tanzania, and via Tanzania’s national broadband backbone it has gained connectivity to the networks of several other countries in the region.

The number of subscribers on LTE infrastructure has increased sharply, helped by national LTE coverage achieved in mid-2018. Mobile remains the dominant platform for voice and data services. The regulator noted that the number of mobile subscribers increased 2.7% in 2021, year-on-year. However, there was a slight fall in the beginning of 2022, though this decline was entirely from Airtel.

MTN based in South Africa is the leading operator in the country with the best coverage. They claim to have a 95% coverage in the country. But this refers to 2G only. 3G is only available in the centers. It used to have a market share of 100% back in 1998, but now faces stiff competition from 2 new players in the market.

Both Airtel and MTN have launched their own 4G LTE networks, having had their operating licences amended to enable them to roll out 4G technology. The two firms were previously only able to offer LTE-based services using the infrastructure of wholesale provider KT Rwanda Networks (KTRN), but the government announced earlier this year that KTRN would lose its exclusivity in the 4G market.

MTN claims to have so far upgraded 80% of its network sites to support 4G technology, while Airtel has not given an update on its coverage. Both firms say they are offering 4G at the same price as their 3G tariffs.

Tigo changed the game when it entered the market in Rwanda in 2008. Their coverage is was as good as MTN's, but they offered quite lower rates.

Airtel bought Tigo in 2017 and Tigo was merged with Airtel. In the intermediate time it was called Airtel-Tigo. In 2020 Airtel-Tigo has rebranded as Airtel Rwanda. The firm has also been issued with a new twelve-year unified operating licence under its new moniker. Airtel claims around 46% of Rwanda’s mobile subscriber total, with the remainder accounted for by market leader MTN.

Airtel launched its own 4G network in July of this year.

In 2013 the Government of Rwanda and KT entered into a Public Private Partnership (PPP) with a Korean group to install a high-speed broadband network and expand the nation's online services capacity. KT Rwanda Networks was established to deliver universal broadband access based on 4G/LTE technology upon Rwanda’s national Fiber optic infrastructure and to manage the fixed-mobile converged infrastructure as the wholesale provider of high-speed mobile broadband, covering 95% of the population within 4 years. 

Airtel and MTN both offered services via KTRN’s 4G wholesale infrastructure, in which Korea Telecom is thought to have invested $140 million. However this monopoly has now ended as both have launched their own networks. 

Back in February, Starlink, the satellite broadband service from SpaceX, was issued a licence to enable it to operate in Rwanda, following on from its recent commercial launch in Nigeria which marked its entry to the African market. A report from New Times said that 500 Rwandan schools were set to receive connectivity from Starlink under a pilot scheme by the end of the month, with full commercial availability before the end of March. The Rwandan government is aiming to connect a further 3,000 schools to the internet by end-2024.

The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change non-profit organization has announced that it worked with the Republic of Rwanda government to provide SpaceX Starlink internet to 50 schools situated in rural communities.

A survey from Ookla, for the second quarter of 2023, said that the Starlink satellite service was faster than all fixed broadband providers in Nigeria and Rwanda. In Rwanda, median download speeds were a little closer with Starlink recording a median download speed at 63.10 Mbps in Q2 2023 compared to the aggregate of all fixed broadband providers combined at 34.55 Mbps.

This week, the Government of Rwanda and SoftBank Corp. announced that on September 24, 2023, they successfully tested SoftBank's proprietary 5G communications payload in the stratosphere installed on a solar-powered High Altitude Platform Station (HAPS) unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) prototype.

The demonstration, conducted for HAPS research purposes in Rwandan airspace by SoftBank and the Government of Rwanda, marked the world's first publicly announced delivery of 5G connectivity from a HAPS UAV in the stratosphere*1. The successful 5G connectivity demonstration follows a stratospheric flight test conducted in Rwanda in June 2023, during which the HAPS UAV prototype carried a mockup of the payload with a similar weight and dimensions.

SoftBank's stratosphere-ready communications payload continuously delivered 5G connectivity for approximately 73 minutes in the stratosphere at a maximum altitude of 16.9km and performed as expected in demanding atmospheric conditions.

During the test, the stratosphere-ready 5G communications payload enabled a 5G-based Zoom video call between a smartphone at the test site in Rwanda and SoftBank team members in Japan. Since the radio waves transmitted and received from the 5G communications payload installed on the HAPS UAV prototype in the stratosphere operated on the same frequencies as existing smartphones and devices, a regular 5G smartphone was used in the test.

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