Africa is springing into fertile ground for WiMAX

The WiMAX activities of Sprint and Clearwire in the US might seem skimpy in comparison to what's happening in Africa, where wireless providers are bringing broadband data connectivity and phone services to underserved areas.

With much of the vast African continent still unconnected to the Internet, wireless providers are now trying to fill the gap with dozens of WiMAX deployments. Three mobile operators outlined plans for countries ranging from Morocco to the Congo during a webcast sponsored by Canadian-based analyst firm Maravedis.

As a result of "many underserved rural areas" in Africa, businesses and consumers in Africa face a "high need for broadband connection," said Maravedis CEO Adlane Fellah, during the recent webcast.

Out of a population of 963.85 million, only 52.24 million people in Africa -- or 5.4% -- currently use the Internet, according to the analyst. Just 10.99 million (1.14%) are Internet subscribers, and only 1.99 million (0.20%) are broadband subscribers.

Meanwhile, carriers are beginning to take advantage of WiMAX opportunities in Africa. Fellah showed a chart depicting more than 15 deployments of IEEE 802.16d fixed WiMAX technology in Africa and approximately 10 implementations of 802.16e mobile WiMAX.

Although many services are just getting launched, combined residential and business revenues from WiMAX in Africa have already grown from about $3 million in the first quarter of 2007 to $13.6 million in the third quarter of 2008, Fellah said. Market drivers include a changing regulatory environment, new licenses, cheaper bandwidth, less expensive WiMAX and multi-mode (WiMAX/CDMA/GSM) devices, and government programs such as the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD).

The analyst cited strong opportunities on the business side in vertical markets such as oil and gas, other utilities, health, education, and physical security.

MaXer International plans a "pan-African" WiMAX deployment with services that will include mobile voice. The company has a footprint in 15 countries, said Roger Diogo, MaXer's executive director, also during the webcast.

MaXer's MaXAfrica arm will include MaXA Congo DRC, MaXA Cameroon, MaXA Togo, and other local subsidiaries.

Wana Telecommunications this year undertook a WiMAX trial with Samsung and Motorola in Casablanca and Rabat, Morocco, noted Tark Janti, the company's network director. The trial included backhaul testing with Alcatel, Sagem, and a number of other vendors. Satellite-based VSAT backhaul was tested in rural areas.

Wana will use a single underlying network infrastructure to provide Internet access, voice, and video applications to both businesses and consumers. Next year, Wana expects to introduce fixed WiMAX services for small to medium-sized enterprises, including remote control and tracking and video-based security.

Then, in 2010, Wana will roll out "mobile wireless broadband for everyone," Janti said.

DiscoveryTel Communications, on the other hand, will focus exclusively on businesses, said Kaissar Jabr, DiscoveryTel's president of international operations.

The company's implementations through DiscoveryTelGhana in Ghana, Universal Communications in Guinea, and Apex Communications on the Ivory Coast will start with fixed, nomadic deployments, to be followed by mobility in Phase 2 and voice in Phase 3.

"DiscoveryTelGhana [had] a very bad experience with residential customers [so] it was decided to concentrate solely on corporate customers," according to Jabr.

An existing network in Ghana, running under Spike, was replaced in 2007 by a BreezeMax system from Alvarion running on 802.16d. "Instead of expanding on BreezeMax we are going to build an 802.16e Wave 2 network, most probably based on the Sequans chipset," he said. Design and negotiations are in their final stages, with a launch due in the first quarter of 2009.

However, the three markets DiscoveryTel is targeting in Africa are not the same. "Markets differ, Ghana being sophisticated and seeking quality, Guinea underserved and looking for cheap service, [and the] Ivory Coast awash with offers [with] competition fiercest on both [these] levels," Jabr said.

Jabr also predicted that increased PC penetration in Africa will lead to further growth in WiMAX, especially on the business side.

But he also pointed to some of the challenges facing WiMAX deployments in Africa. "Small and [medium-sized] operators are squeezed between regulators who keep changing their rules, capacity providers who are unreliable and/or expensive, [and] vendors who have a commercial face which is very different from their delivery face," according to the international operations chief.

The current credit crunch "will not appease the [relationship] of the operators with any of those stakeholders," Jabr contended. "Nobody is immune from the credit crunch; it all depends on the magnitude and exposure."

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