“Africa Com”, the largest communications event in Africa, was held this November in Cape Town. Among the many conferences and technical demonstrations, one in particular caught our attention: On day two of the event, Africa Analysis’ managing director André Wills revealed the possible uses of the new WiMax technology on the African continent.
What is Wimax? Take your low power in-house Wifi network and increase
its power (hence, reach) a great deal. What you get is a GSM-type
transmission of data over the airwaves, capable of providing very fast
internet to remote areas, where phone lines, let alone ADSL, are not
Tests have shown that Wimax works fine up to 30 kms away from the broadcast antenna.
Although he has some justified reserves as to whether such systems would be profitable, Wills thinks that this could be a fantastic new technology able to catapult Africa into the modern world, bringing facebook and google to isolated villages.
But the question is whether or not people will be able to afford the needed subscription. And could States or local governing bodies sponsor such systems?
In Europe, only a handful of places have Wimax, most of them being isolated initiatives in areas where ADSL is not yet implemented, like villages
or rural areas thanks to the influence of geeky local politicians.
Until a recent trip to Japan, I had never seen Wimax in operation. There,
Wimax is offered in the form of a USB dongle, which is simply plugged to a
laptop computer (see picture).
A monthly subscription, this gives unlimited access to a very stable 40 Mbps downward data stream (10 Mbps upward), much faster than the best current UMTS (3G+) networks operated by cell phone companies (on average 3 Mbps in European cities).
The major reason why Wimax has not been fully deployed in developed countries is the fact that powerful cell phone operations heavily lobby against it. And rightly so. They had to invest billions in order to obtain their UMTS/3G+ licenses and are not ready to let a new technology spoil their lucrative business.
This might be easier to overcome in Africa, where the need to offer cheap fast internet could be more pressing and where cell phone networks can’t always support fast internet.
There are already about 20 local Wimax operatiors in North Africa and the Middle-East, but very few, almost none in fact, in sub-Saharan Africa.
To launch such a network, investment is substantial but not nearly as high as it is for cell phone networks which require many more antennas. The main problem is regulatory one.
Wimax operates on frequencies around 3 Ghz, which in most countries are not yet open to non-military use. But again, if politicians see the huge benefits their electorate stand to derive from Wimax technology, maybe information technology could evolve much faster than is the case in Europe.