FWA: The Answer to Sub-Saharan Africa’s connectivity challenge

One of the regions with the lowest access to high-speed internet is Sub-Saharan Africa, where only 29% of the population use the internet at all, much less gigabit broadband.

Guest author

November 1, 2021

5 Min Read
Digital mainlands from space. Cities and countries connected by plexus light lines. Virtual continents. Creative technology,

Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Wim van Thillo, CEO and Co-Founder at Pharrowtech, talks up the merits of fixed wireless access for connecting the unconnected.

To be part of the world’s ever-more digital economy, individuals and businesses need reliable, high speed internet access. The latest smartphone or tablet might be a great gadget, but without connectivity it won’t have a significant impact on anyone’s life.

World organisations and national governments across the globe know this, and work with the private sector to improve access to gigabit broadband. Indeed, UNESCO and the ITU Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development have set a target of connecting 75% of the world’s population to high-speed internet by 2025. To reach this ambitious, but not impossible, target, developing countries will need to be an area of focus.

One of the regions with the lowest access to high-speed internet is Sub-Saharan Africa, where only 29% of the population use the internet at all, much less gigabit broadband. This is compared to 57% of the world’s population, and 86% of those in Europe and Central Asia.

The difference in these figures is striking, and has a negative economic impact on Sub-Saharan Africa – a region which contains many of the least developed countries in the world. Widespread, reliable, high speed connectivity is vital to support economic growth and development. Without it, the region simply won’t have access to the same opportunities that others do.

So the question is, how do we solve this challenge?

The Fibre Failure

There is no doubt that European fibre deployments in densely populated, urban areas have generally been successful. That said, it is simply not an approach that could be replicated in Sub-Saharan Africa, for several reasons.

First, Sub-Saharan Africa does not have legacy internet infrastructure that can be upgraded. While there are advantages to a blank connectivity landscape, such as enabling the design and deployment of next-generation and even futureproof networks, the obvious downside is a lack of hardware in place that can be upgraded, such as pipes for underground cabling.

This links to the second challenge, which is the extremely high cost of fibre deployments. This is of course exacerbated if there is no existing infrastructure in place, and is one of the primary reasons why global fibre deployments to date have been largely centered in densely populated cities.

Third are environmental considerations. Fibre is disruptive to deploy, due to the need for laying cables underground that reach individual homes and businesses. This can be extremely disruptive and may have a negative impact on the natural environment. Furthermore, fibre is not particularly well suited to deployments in areas with challenging topography such as mountains, valleys and rivers.

Fundamentally, fibre is not a panacea for the world’s connectivity challenges. Satellite internet has also been proposed as a way to bring Sub-Saharan Africa online, but due to its low throughput and high latency, this is not a feasible long-term solution.

A Silver Bullet

One technology that could be the solution for many, if not all, of these challenges is Fixed Wireless Access (FWA). As little as five years ago this suggestion might have been dismissed, but the technology has evolved in leaps and bounds and is now a highly attractive option.

Most notably, not only can FWA now provide connectivity at a comparable bandwidth and latency to fibre, but it can be deployed rapidly and at a far lower cost, as no large-scale physical infrastructure is required. This also means that any environmental impact is significantly less than that of deploying fibre.

Furthermore, FWA can utilise unlicensed 5G frequency bands for connectivity. Indeed, one of the key reasons that FWA is now a viable alternative to fibre internet is 5G. The ability to use unlicensed bands lowers the barrier to participation for ISPs, and so can increase market competition, helping keep costs low for consumers – crucial in developing economies.

While 4G connectivity is appropriate for a myriad of mobile and smartphone use cases, it is not suitable for reliable streaming, video conferencing, or other high-bandwidth tasks. 5G is; it is far more than the next iteration of mobile connectivity. It will transform the way that individuals globally live and work. 5G and FWA in combination will be the silver bullet for connecting everyone, everywhere, to high speed internet.

To A More Connected World

Specific problems need specific solutions, and Sub-Saharan Africa’s connectivity challenges cannot be solved with a European approach. While urban fibre deployments in Western Europe have brought gigabit broadband to many for the first time, it is simply not the best tool to give that same access to high-speed connectivity to African citizens.

FWA and 5G, deployed in combination, are that specific solution for deploying fast and reliable internet at a low cost across challenging terrain – and supporting Sub-Saharan Africa’s economic development.


Wim-Van-Thillo-150x150.jpgWim has more than 15 years of experience focused on mmWave R&D first as a researcher and later as a program director for imec’s activities in cellular, WiFi and mmWave transceivers. In that role, he was essential in shaping the R&D roadmap and business opportunities for emerging wireless technologies. Wim was also a visiting researcher at UC Berkeley, focused on researching 60GHz high speed wireless communications. He holds a PhD in Electrical Engineering and a degree in Business Economics from the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven.

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