Middle East, Africa's mobile giants take first steps on sharing networks to cut costs, boost rural coverage

Middle East, Africa's mobile giants take first steps on sharing networks to cut costs, boost rural coverage

Summary: The region's biggest mobile operators – including Orange, Vodafone and Zain – are forging a new alliance that should help tackle the problem of rural connectivity, as well as swell their own markets.

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Eight major mobile operators in the Middle East and Africa (MEA) have announced plans to work together on a new network infrastructure sharing initiative.

The move — which follows a meeting between the operators at last month's Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona — is believed to be the first of its kind in any region, and is underpinned by a memorandum of understanding between mobile operators trade association the GSMA and the eight carriers themselves: Bharti Airtel, Etisalat, MTN, Ooredoo, Orange, STC, Vodafone, and Zain.

Collectively, the eight operators manage 551 million mobile connections via 79 mobile networks in 47 countries across the MEA region.

However, as Anne Bouverot, director general of the GSMA, noted when announcing the initiative: "Unique mobile subscriber penetration is only 40 percent in Africa and the Middle East, lower than the global average of 47 percent, so we need to work together to expand the reach of mobile."

A World Bank report recently highlighted how affordability — alongside service availability — is a key barrier to mobile adoption for many MEA consumers.

It is hoped that the MoU will provide a framework to help address these twin concerns; with the eight operators working together to determine viable opportunities for active and passive infrastructure sharing, as well as encouraging MEA governments to create the regulatory environment needed to turn these aspirations into a reality.

Peter Lyons, director of public policy at the GSMA, told ZDNet that the driving force behind the initiative was the mobile operators themselves.

"They recognise the game-changing opportunity that affordable mobile broadband connectivity will bring to Africa and the Middle East," he said.

And although this initiative will primarily focus on reaching underserved communities in rural areas, there are potential benefits for participating operators too.

"There are a number challenges for operators related to delivering this connectivity,"  Lyons said, citing examples such as "high capital and operating expenditure requirements for the core network, radio access network, fibre transmission and international connectivity".

"Infrastructure sharing could offer operators a means of aggregating increasing data traffic, reducing average costs, improving sustainability of investment and delivering more affordable services to customers," he said.

Many of the factors — technical, environmental, economic and regulatory — will need to be addressed in order to turn the aspiration behind this initiative into a reality; and many of them will need to be tackled on a market-by-market basis.

"In many countries, a lot more work still needs to be done on developing suitable regulatory frameworks that allow for flexible commercial sharing arrangements," Lyons said.

And even "where the local policy environment is supportive, and regulatory conditions offer practical flexibility, operators will [still] need to thoroughly assess the commercial and technical feasibility of possible sharing arrangements," he said.

But, once this has been done, then the GSMA hopes that consumers and operators will soon start to see the results.

"This will not happen overnight," Lyons said, "but we do expect to begin to see progress this year."

Given that it's the first time these efforts have been attempted at a regional scale, it will be interesting to see how these plans to come to fruition. Consumers in the MEA, alongside regulators and mobile operators in other regions across the globe, will no doubt be watching with interest.

Read more on network sharing

Topics: Mobility, Networking, Telcos

Damian Radcliffe

About Damian Radcliffe

Damian Radcliffe has been working in media and technology since 1995. He is currently based in Qatar where he is researching and reporting on the societal impact of ICT and emerging internet issues in the Middle East, as well as wider global developments.

This follows 17 years in the UK's commercial, public, regulatory and non-profit communications sectors, in a range of mid-level and senior editorial, research and policy roles.

Damian was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 2008 and Honorary Research Fellow at the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies in 2012.

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