Cracking the broadband supply barrier in Africa

The bandwidth glass in Nigeria seems to be going from half empty to half full. One of the first new licences aimed at cracking open broadband supply barriers went to a local company, Bitflux.

Russell Southwood spoke to the people behind it, Biodun Omoniyi and Tokunbo Talabi.

When I was last in Lagos in February this year, I talked about the possibility of there being a real take-off of broadband. Smile, Spectranet and Swift now have somewhere between 100-150,000 LTE data subscribers, with growing network coverage.

Because as one industry insider told me:”The mobile operators’ performance in terms of data (on 3G) has been mixed and they have difficulties with spectrum.” Overall somewhere between 0.5-1 million people in Lagos have broadband: as ever, precise figures are elusive.

Several people are now aggressively rolling out metro fibre including Main One, 21st Century, VDT, ipNX and BCN (in Abuja). Main One’s 1500 sq m data centre in Lekki is completing and will offer services soon.

The Nigerian Government and the regulator NCC declared MTN a “dominant player” in the voice market in March 2013 but no action seems to have been taken to directly address this since.

There are the usual unreliable rumours that Airtel will look to sell its operation in Africa and that one of Etisalat’s shareholders is looking to pull out but you can’t believe everything you hear.

Into this mix of circumstances, the regulator NCC has issued various licences designed to unblock market access including Bitflux’s local access wireless wholesale network and various Infraco licences, all designed to operate on open access principles.

Biodun Omoniyi told me: “Bitflux will provide national coverage and it will deal with the last mile of the Infraco business.”

To ensure that existing players do not entrench their position, it will be the sole wholesale wireless operating company and its prices will be regulated by NCC: “Pricing has to be transparent and NCC will be monitoring it.”

Two companies came together to win the licence, one of which was corporate ISP VDT but the Bitflux founders are insistent that it will have no special privileges from Bitflux, which will need to get lots of ISP and mobile business to succeed.

Each customer of Bitflux retains their own identity with its customers and Bitflux will not be in the retail space.

To increase the speeds available to everybody, Bitflux will be building an LTE-A network in all 36 states, starting in phase 1 with the usual trio of Lagos, Port Harcourt and Abuja. This will be followed by a further 6 cities in early Q2 next year.

The technology will allow speeds to end users in the region of 100 mbps and CPE’s operating on LTE-A are according to Bitflux going to cost somewhere between US45-93.

The network will hire space on the existing towers now run by tower leasing companies and will be “built along the path of existing mobile data networks” so will be able to offer “load shedding” for existing congested mobile data networks.

In an interesting twist, Bitflux also has digital mobile voice as part of its licence and the network will be commissioned to allow access at speeds up to 120 kms per hour. This will allow both LTE-A phones and Wi-Fi calls using data.

Bitflux has already been in discussions about interconnect fees and says that some mobile operators are reluctant but others are in serious conversations: you can guess which companies fall into each category. However, this is smart regulation and puts pressure on the mobile incumbents to move to an all-date future.

It will be launched in October this year. According to Tokunbo Talabi:”The success of our business model is based on convergence. W have to share everything. We’re a form of consolidator or integrator.”

So when will Nigeria get widespread, cheaper broadband of a European or US quality for retail customers?:

“We are like the apostle, called to make that happen. Much rests on the quality of the network and the standards we maintain. We are determined to bring this kind of bandwidth to the market.”

All of the above is undoubtedly good news but the missing piece seems to be at the national network level? Who will challenge MTN’s dominant position that has led to such high prices?

By Balancing Act

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Cracking the broadband supply barrier in Africa