Improving rural connectivity
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CTA. 2003. Improving rural connectivity. ICT Update Issue 10. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands
Permanent link to this item: http://hdl.handle.net/10568/57607
By Mike Jensen New wireless and satellite technologies can radically reduce the cost of connectivity. Unfortunately, most developing countries do not yet allow people to implement them.
New telecommunication systems using wireless and satellite technologies have recently become available that will radically reduce the cost of connectivity. They will also make access possible from virtually anywhere on the planet, without the need for traditional cables. Because these systems can use the Internet, which allows you to share your connection with anyone, even small organizations and individuals in rural areas in developing countries can now afford relatively cheap access, especially where there is no existing telecom infrastructure. Radio transmitters for broadband ´line of sight´ connections now cost less than €100. As a result, hundreds of user groups around the world are setting up their own local wireless infrastructure for Internet sharing. Long-distance links using terrestrial HF radio and Ku-band satellite transmitters now cost only €1000-€2000. In addition, satellite companies like Hughes, Panamsat, Intelsat and Ipstar are providing connectivity superior to any dialup system in the developing world for less than €200 per month. When these two systems are combined, connectivity can be affordably brought to remote rural areas via satellite, with the cost of the terrestrial radio connections being shared among users. Market access Unfortunately, most developing countries do not yet allow people to set up their own telecom links in this fashion - either through outright prohibition, or by levying unaffordable licence fees. The pace of technological change in this area has been so rapid that most policy makers are unaware of the implications, and still conform to traditional models of telecommunication development in which market access is restricted to a few licensed telecom operators. Consequently, the most important challenge for rural connectivity is no longer technological, but centres on building awareness among national policy makers of these new models of access provision and the benefits of owner-deployed and owner-financed infrastructure. Restrictions on the number of licensed operators are usually justified by the need to ensure that the operators are able to generate sufficient income to roll out infrastructure in under-served areas without the funds being siphoned off by too many competitors. However, experience since the breakup of AT&T has shown that the only way to ensure efficient service delivery is to bring self-interest fully into play by opening up markets and using competition to do much of the regulating. In practical terms, while greater competition and more owner provisioning in the telecom industry may indeed result in some overlap and duplication of resources by the different competitors, the overall operation of the sector is more efficient than when only a few licensed operators have access to the market. It has long been assumed that provision of rural connectivity in developing countries is unprofitable. This assumption has bolstered the arguments of those who favour limiting market access, and who believe that revenues from the more profitable urban areas are needed to cross-subsidize access in rural areas. However, the plummeting cost of bandwidth and the increasing value of telecoms links that can carry not only voice calls, but also valuable Internet data and e-commerce transactions, mean that this assumption must be seriously re-examined. When these new dynamics are considered alongside the often underestimated levels of rural wealth (bolstered by remittances from the Diaspora) and the potential of owner-financed, owner-deployed wireless and satellite infrastructure, it is clear that policy makers need to rethink their traditional approaches to achieving rural connectivity. Mike Jensen is an independent ICT consultant based in South Africa (email: email@example.com).