As societies worldwide grapple with the impact of Covid-19, the need for mobile connectivity is clearer than ever. This is especially true in developing nations that rely heavily on mobile networks due to the limited availability of fixed broadband; according to the ITU, only 0.4 per 100 people have access to fixed broadband in Sub-Saharan Africa.
With people working remotely, receiving education and healthcare online, and engaging in virtual leisure and social activities, the demand for mobile connectivity has soared for both individual and business users alike. For example, Kenya’s Safaricom saw a 70% surge in data usage during the lockdown, and South Africa’s MTN reported a 30% increase in demand.
TowerCos: The Foundation for Mobile Connectivity
While mobile connectivity is often thought of from the perspective of mobile network operators (MNOs) and their consumers, the physical infrastructure that enables such connectivity is an essential part of the communications supply chain. This infrastructure, also known as “passive infrastructure”, is owned and maintained by tower companies (TowerCos).
TowerCos lease space on their towers to multiple MNOs, who place their own network equipment on them to provide their services to consumers and businesses. This model of shared use reduces the overall investment and operating costs for MNOs, enabling them to deliver faster network rollout in more locations, improve coverage, reduce consumer prices, and raise the service quality.
Despite their importance, the role TowerCos play is often overlooked within the policy landscape, resulting in regulatory barriers that hinder infrastructure rollout and connectivity. To mitigate the ongoing impact of Covid-19 and meet the growing demand for connectivity, policy responses must recognise the centrality of passive infrastructure in the telecommunications ecosystem. By adapting their regulatory frameworks to reflect TowerCos’ contribution, governments will effectively promote economic growth and development in Africa, noting that a 10% increase in mobile internet penetration increases the continent’s GDP by 2.5%, compared with 2% globally.
Lessons Learned from Covid-19: Perspectives from the Tower Industry
Access Partnership recently explored regulatory responses relating to the tower industry implemented during Covid-19. Through our research, we underscore the importance of TowerCos for developing and maintaining mobile connectivity. The research further identifies important lessons from the perspective of TowerCos that are particularly relevant to governments and regulators in how they continue to manage the current crisis, as well as how they plan for future ones.
The main lesson learned is that governments need to put in place specific measures to encourage infrastructure sharing and support critical passive telecommunications infrastructure. These include (i) classifying telecommunications networks as critical infrastructure and affording them the required protections; (ii) facilitating the free movement of personnel charged with upholding network resilience and maintenance; and (iii) encouraging the adoption of digital technologies across government entities to facilitate all administrative processes.
In addition, funding mechanisms, particularly Universal Service Funds, should be used to finance the additional connectivity that the new work and social patterns forced upon us over the past year demand. Additionally, by creating a one-stop-shop for all permitting authorisations and a dedicated focal point for regulatory authorities, governments can go a long way in facilitating infrastructure deployment.
Despite the widespread benefits these measures could provide for connectivity expansion in the context of COVID-19 and the challenges it presents, initial policy responses to the pandemic largely failed to include them. Instead, policy responses tended to consider the telecommunications sector with a focus on consumers and retail service providers. In that regard, they generally failed to recognise the unique and vital role of passive infrastructure and the specific regulatory approaches needed to protect and support it.
Looking Ahead: Africa’s Youth for Growth
TowerCos provide the foundation for mobile connectivity. Implementing a policy framework that accounts for their role and importance is therefore essential to improve network deployment and set the basis of digital transformation. The economic and social benefits of expanding internet access and growing the digital economy are extensive. In their ‘e-Conomy Africa 2020’ report, Google and the IFC find that increasing internet penetration to 75% has the potential to create 44 million new jobs. This is especially pertinent considering the dominance of Africa’s youth, with McKinsey predicting Africa’s youth population will create $5.6 trillion in business opportunities by 2025.
Despite its essential role in the connectivity supply chain, passive infrastructure is often omitted from policy and regulatory responses, as was the case during Covid-19. By adopting measures to facilitate the essential work of TowerCos and accelerate infrastructure deployment, governments can directly boost Africa’s economic value; with Africa on track to add USD 180 billion (5.2%) to its GDP by 2025 through increased digital connectivity.
Christopher Casarrubias, Principal Lead of Emerging Markets at Access Partnership