Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Building full-blown cellphone towers in rural villages usually doesn’t make a whole lot of business sense.

In far-flung communities with only a few thousand inhabitants, a standard tower costs about $100,000 to set up, meaning that a mobile operator will usually have to wait 10 years to see a return on its investment, as traffic on these networks is limited, according to Chinese technology company Huawei.

For that reason, mobile operators have focused on more profitable urban areas in their initial network rollouts — which means close to 1-million people are still without coverage in SA, says Huawei Southern Africa vice-president David Chen.

That’s a staggering number, considering that Vodacom and MTN, which are obligated to achieve 100% coverage by 2020, launched SA’s first cellular services nearly a quarter of a century ago.

With the universal coverage deadline approaching, Huawei and MTN are trying out a cell tower made specifically for rural areas.

Forget the 30m² sites that cost more than R1m and for which approvals can take months; they’re simply perching antennas on top of cheap wooden or metal poles. This cuts the upfront cost to a more palatable $10,000. Operating expenditure is also lower, as the mast runs on solar power rather than diesel generators. In rural areas, cell masts usually consume about $10,000 worth of diesel a year, Chen says.

And rather than the current method of using relatively expensive satellite signals for the backhaul portion of the network — the part of the network that connects cell towers to the operator’s core network — the antenna uses cheaper 4G signals. "There’s also no need for guards because, in rural areas, people are so welcoming [of coverage] they take care of these sites like it’s their own property," Chen says. "Nobody will steal it."

MTN and Huawei developed the specialised towers in Ghana, and are about to launch a trial site in rural KwaZulu-Natal.

Like SA, Ghana is aiming for universal network coverage by 2020. It’s arguably an easier task for the West African nation, which has half the population of SA and a fifth of its land area.

If we don’t take steps to promote digital inclusion, we run the risk of leaving vulnerable and marginalised groups of society behind
Ursula Owusu-Ekuful

But Ghana’s minister of communications, Ursula Owusu-Ekuful, said in Durban last month that nearly 2,000 communities in her country still have no mobile signal.

"We’re making significant strides … From 2006-2017, 117 rural telephony sites were constructed, but in 2017 alone 100 rural telephony sites were constructed and activated, meaning over 500 communities got access to mobile signals for the first time," Owusu-Ekuful said.

Another 100 sites are to be built this year in partnership with Huawei and MTN, which held a 55% share of the country’s mobile market last year.

Owusu-Ekuful, who calls herself the "mother" of the new RuralStar cell mast, said the more affordable tower "has enabled us to perform this miracle of 200 sites in two years".

The towers have cut the cost of deployment by about 60% and operating expenditure by about 40%, she said.

"If we don’t take steps to promote digital inclusion, we run the risk of leaving vulnerable and marginalised groups of society behind, and further marginalising them — we can’t afford that."

Huawei has a contract in Ghana to install 300 RuralStar masts, and is slightly over halfway there.

Elsewhere, it has done commercial launches of the tower in Nigeria (with MTN), Kenya (with Vodacom associate Safaricom) and Zambia.

The company is running trial sites in eight other countries, including SA, and is promoting the concept on the premise that mobile operators will see a return on these investments within three years.

What it means

The new towers could help SA service providers reach their target of universal coverage by 2020

Chen says Huawei plans to pitch the product to other SA operators.

However, smaller operators Cell C and Telkom have previously said they plan to focus almost entirely on urban areas, and that they will simply roam on their larger rivals’ networks for rural coverage.

SA’s largest operator, Vodacom, has already claimed a lead in terms of rural coverage. Earlier this year it said that, thanks to its "accelerated rural coverage programme", it had become the first operator in Africa to reach 80% population coverage on a 4G network.

The Vodafone subsidiary said it already provides 81.5% of the population with 4G coverage and as much as 99.4% with 3G.

Meanwhile, network operators also see SA’s new "TV white space" rules as an opportunity to extend rural coverage. The regulations, announced earlier this year by the Independent Communications Authority of SA, will allow operators to use idle radio frequencies between TV channels.

Operators have said for years they would have been able to roll out services in rural areas far quicker if the state had released unutilised radio waves, or spectrum.

While announcing his stimulus plan for the economy recently, President Cyril Ramaphosa said "high-demand radio spectrum to enable licensing" would be rolled out "in the next few weeks".

This, Ramaphosa said, would help reduce data costs and "increase the overall competitiveness of the SA economy".