WiFi getting big attention in Africa

Michael Fletcher (2)
Michael Fletcher, sales director Sub-Saharan Africa at Ruckus Wireless.

With the changing telecommunications environment in Africa, not too mention the market dynamics, mobile operators are finding themselves under tremendous pressure to adapt or face getting left behind.

The introduction of affordable smartphones and the dominance of social media and over-the-top (OTT) services have certainly changed ‘the game’ and consumers are now demanding more from their mobile operators – not only in terms of better coverage – but better connectivity too. And as mobile penetration continues to rise – this demand is only set to increase, especially if we consider that many consumers are moving away from pure voice services towards data, data and more data.

Change and flexibility is required
As a result, mobile operators need to be smart and more forward thinking with their offerings, and incorporating OTT services is a move in the right direction. In fact, many operators are already doing this – offering WhatsApp or Twitter, for example, for free to all their subscribers. What’s more, many are looking to WiFi today – not as a competitive medium – but rather a complementary one, to offload traffic from their core networks. A good example of this is WiFi Calling which will drive greater amounts of smartphone traffic onto WiFi networks. This could fundamentally change the mobile network operator business model. An example of this could be the development of Voice over Wi-Fi smartphones at a lower entry point thereby catering for emerging markets. Irrespective of whether it is an Android, iOS, or Microsoft Phone-based device, the interoperability of the technology means it could work on virtually any handset. While some operators have fully embraced this, it will be interesting to see which other mobile operators follow suit, especially if we consider that this kind of change is needed in an environment that is often pressured for more ‘change’ and ‘flexibility’.

If we consider that research indicates a 55% growth in mobile subscriptions in Middle East and Africa between 2014 and 2020, it is evident that mobile subscribers are contributing to this drive for change. The reality though, is that data is still expensive and while it has become a necessity to remain connected today, this is not the reality for everyone. As a result, mobile operators are still grappling to figure out how best to improve coverage and increase network capacity, without compromising consumers’ user experience.

Say Hello to Small Cells
It is for this reason that the LTE small cell market has also generated a great deal of interest from MNOs and RAN vendors over the past few years.  The goals of this effort are to greatly increase cellular capacity in high traffic locations and to improve indoor coverage.  The primary applications will be packet voice and other real-time applications, along with high value data traffic. However, the bulk of the data traffic in high-density locations will continue to be handled by WiFi.

Industry pundits have forecasted rapid growth in LTE small cell deployments, but that growth has been slow to materialise.  In some cases there were technical problems that needed resolution, like interference mitigation with the macro cellular layer, but the real challenges are around the business model.  At the heart of the business model discussion is the issue of “who pays” to deploy the network.  With macro cellular deployments, the operator always pays, but with small cell deployments in hotels, shopping malls, hospitals, and schools the burden starts to shift, for the most part, to the venue.

In many ways, the enterprise LTE small cell market is much more like WiFi than it is like the outdoor macro cellular market.  With WiFi the venue almost always pays, the network can be installed by a value added reseller, and the equipment is inexpensive and easy to operate.  This is the trifecta for a successful enterprise deployment.

The most fascinating aspect of the LTE small cell business is not in the technology but in the business models that will emerge to support and pay for this greatly enhanced cellular connectivity.

WiFi’s role is critical
The need for better connectivity overall means WiFi connectivity becomes a huge role player in the future of telecoms in Africa. Skeptics might argue that wireless was never designed for voice and could result in technical issues. However, advances in technology mean that delay-sensitive content, such as video and voice, are now able to utilise highly optimised signals, ensuring stronger coverage. One thing is clear, as Africans we are hungry for connectivity and mobile operators play a major role in making this come alive. However, to remain relevant and innovative in the connectivity space, operators need to realise that WiFi is here to stay and should be seen as a complementary medium to provide quality coverage and meet changing consumer demands. For a continent driven by mobility, WiFi presents a significant opportunity to aid mobile operators and improve our mobile networks.

Michael Fletcher, sales director Sub-Saharan Africa at Ruckus Wireless