In recent years, Africa has laid the foundation for a digital transformation that promises to unleash the full force of its talent and economic potential.
But despite progress, the online universe of ideas and opportunity remains out of reach for up to 60 percent of people across the continent.
Public WiFi is one way to bridge the gap.
Increasingly, it’s the “last mile” solution for connecting poor or remote Africans to broadband networks that have spread since 2009, when the first major submarine fiber cables reached the continent’s shores. And it’s spurring growth in everything from telemedicine and education to tech startups and small businesses.
“Once you gain access to fiber,” said Steve Song, a communications entrepreneur who has written extensively about connectivity in Africa, “your big challenge is gaining access to spectrum to deliver those services.”
Across the continent, low-cost or free public WiFi services are filling the void — as tech giants and startups alike find innovative solutions for the unique challenges that Africa presents. Along the way, they are helping to jump start a far-reaching cultural and economic transformation.
“There’s a direct correlation between broadband penetration and GDP growth,” said Olakunle Oloruntimehin, general manager in Nigeria for Cisco, which has partnered with Google, governments, service providers, and startups to help expand public WiFi.
“Most governments are aware of this,” Oloruntimehin added. “And they are beginning to spend money on public WiFi.”
With its shorter range but lower cost and higher bandwidth than most cellular networks, WiFi fits the bill for many applications, both urban and rural.
There’s a direct correlation between broadband penetration and GDP growth.“WiFi turns out to be a super-cheap, and super-powerful technology,” Song said. “It was good in 2009, but it’s just gotten better and better over the years. In terms of performance and the kind of capacity that can be delivered over a license-exempt spectrum link, but also in that the costs have come down.”
One company that’s translating these low costs to users is BRCK, a Nairobi-based startup that’s extending to Rwanda and other African countries. It combines ruggedized router/data center nodes with a WIFi network platform called Moja. The goal is to reach frontier markets, whether in fast-growing megacities or isolated villages.
“We’re in the furthest rural areas, we’re inside of public transportation, we’re all over the place,” said Erik Hersman of BRCK. “And that allows us to store and cache data at the very edge, which makes a great user experience for the consumer.”
When it comes to WiFi in Africa, business innovation is as important as tech innovation, Hersman believes.
“It’s the business model that allows us to give that Internet away for free,” he said. “The way we do that is that business customers of ours pay to cache their content. This could be video content, it could be App downloads or storage. That offsets the price of the Internet for the consumer.”
Empower the People (With or Without Reliable Power)Of course, with challenges that range from extreme heat and monsoon rains to corruption and power outages, Africa can be a tough environment for any Internet solution.
Unreliable power grids are one of BRCK’s biggest obstacles, according to Hersman.
“We probably spend almost as much time on power as we do on connectivity,” he said. “Power, it comes in many forms here, very little of it clean. And so we have to think through what happens when there’s a brownout, what happens when there’s a power spike?”
BRCK’s gear is equipped with up to 10 hours of backup battery power and protection against surges, which in the past have fried routers.
Tizeti is a Lagos, Nigeria, startup that uses solar-powered WiFi towers to expand its reach. Lately, it has drawn interest from Silicon Valley venture capitalists, while forging a partnership with Facebook. And it’s moving beyond Nigeria to Ghana and other countries.
“We’ve done everything from a different lens,” said Kendall Ananyi of Tizeti. “The way to get the most impact is to do things differently, and question everything that’s being done in the industry as a whole.”
Tizeti’s approach to electricity reflects that thinking.
“Energy access is still a big problem in Nigeria,” Ananyi said. “For us, running our towers with a two-kilometers radius would require power around the clock. We got innovative on that. We use solar power to generate electricity for our towers. We don’t have to deal with the cost of diesel, cost of maintaining generators, so using solar power and battery back-up helps us in our situation.”
In offering a range of free to low-cost options, Tizeti is impacting a wide swath of users, while accelerating business development within the range of its towers.
“New start-ups that have not been funded would look to Tizeti as their source of internet,” he said. “They use it as a business resource, they use it to access any of the cloud services that they have.”
Education and Medicine, Where They’re Needed MostLike Internet users everywhere, Africans want to connect with family and friends while accessing entertainment, music, and so on.
And public WiFi is spreading the wealth in all kinds of places, by reaching people who would otherwise be shut out.
“It’s literally anywhere where people cluster,” said Song. “That can be a shopping mall, a petrol station, a grocery store, matatu [minibuses] in Kenya, any public square, any government building, all of these things are right for the location of WiFi services. It’s just astounding how many WiFi announcements there have been in the last two years across the African continent.”
But for many it’s also a lifeline to the outside world — especially in regions where infant and child mortality remain stubbornly high.
Cisco and its partners, for example, have piloted a telemedicine project from Gertrude’s Children’s Hospital in Nairobi, Kenya, connecting far-flung villages with expert, real-time medical advice.
“There are specialists in the city of Nairobi that treat children,” said David Bunei, Cisco’s country manager for East Africa, “but you have to get to the hospital. So they’re doing telemedicine.... This could not have happened without having connectivity and WiFi in some of those locations.”
Education is another area in which WiFi can change lives, especially considering that 38 percent of adult Africans are illiterate.
“Getting people to and from a classroom can be a real trial, especially when that’s time that could be spent studying or working,” said Gordon Feller, founder of Meeting of the Minds, a knowledge-sharing platform for connected technologies. “Suddenly, public WiFi changes that whole story. If we can deliver the learning to where the student and the learner is, we can provide a reliable pipe for interactive learning.”
As Bunei added, even those who lack literacy can expand their horizons.
“Now you see people who know how to use WhatsApp,” he said, “and they don’t know how to read and write. So, it just tells you the impact of what technology can do in impacting societies, by being able to have a video that has a training or they can record something and share that among the groups.”
A Vast Frontier Market, Rife with OpportunityWhen hundreds of millions of people are shut out from the Internet, their talent, perspective, and dynamism are lost to the world.
Bunei called public WiFi a game changer, particularly for women in rural areas.
“It’s creating a whole new transformation of societies,” he said. “And I think women are at the center of that. The power of an application like WhatsApp cannot be quantified.
The women creating a business together, they use these platforms now to communicate, share information, and to literally educate the groups that they are part of.Building the on-ramp to the Internet is step one. Access to the global digital economy is the end goal.“Even more powerful is fundraising,” he added. “They’re able to do fundraising and support each other on a project, and give each other loans within the groups … I think this is just the beginning of a revolution in terms of what Internet can do for society.”
Public WiFi is also sowing the seeds for a huge potential market, and smart companies are looking ahead.
“Certain companies will move forward on this early and think about their business model as it applies to frontier markets,” said Hersman. “But a lot more need to because the [current] connected population will be absolutely dwarfed by the frontier market, Internet users coming on board over the next 10 years.”
Meanwhile, Google, SpaceX, Facebook and others are looking at future solutions for underserved areas, including high-altitude balloons, swarms of microsatellites, and solar-powered drones — all designed to beam connectivity across wide swaths of the continent.
Whatever the technical solutions, the intentions are similar.
“Building the on-ramp to the Internet is step one,” concluded Hersman. “Building access to the global digital economy is the end goal.”