How US firm plans to extend wireless connectivity across rural Rwanda

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One of Vanu Inc's workers tests data on the firm's site. Vanu targets to extend wireless connection to 300 rural locations countrywide. (Courtesy)

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Dr Bose says ICT will drive growth of small rural towns across the country. (Courtesy)

Rwanda looks to accelerate socio-economic development through information and communication technology (ICT), and creating access to ICT infrastructure is at the heart of Vision 2020.

Like any other African country, transformational impact of broadband on people’s lives and global economies is no longer questionable; the remaining challenge is to extend these obvious benefits to the majority of global citizens and allow them to unleash their creative potential to fully integrate in the information-driven global economy.

Currently, millions of people in the rural parts of the country do not access these services due to connectivity challenges. This means that more investors are needed to fast-track the rollout. Business Times’ Julius Bizimungu caught up with Dr Vanu Bose, the CEO of Vanu Inc, a company which looks to provide wireless coverage solutions for rural populations in Rwanda, for insights on the opportunities wireless infrastructure deployment presents local stakeholders, among other issues.

What sparked your interest in Rwanda’s ICT sector?

Rwanda is one of the fastest-growing African countries in ICT development and use, and in fact the country seeks to create an ICT infrastructure comparable to those in the developed world to tap into the opportunities the sector presents. We also believe that a robust ICT industry can create wealth, jobs and entrepreneurs. Therefore we applaud the government’s efforts to improve the sector and increase access so that Rwandans benefit from the several avenues for growth using ICTs. 

We have this model of building the coverage for rural areas and we want the place to build the model in Africa. Everyone I talked to advised me to come to Rwanda if I wanted to introduce a new business model in ICT on the continent. So far, I have not been disappointed; I noticed that it’s much easier to start up any business in Rwanda compared to many other African countries. The way the country facilitates entrepreneurs is quite encouraging. From acquiring visas and investment permits to connecting with key stakeholders, it is unique, and the environment is conducive to investors.The regulatory bodies here are helpful and very supportive. However, in some countries, the rules and principles may stop you from doing new things.

Why the focus on rural areas for your wireless infrastructure development?

First of all, it’s clear that Kigali city has a good coverage of wireless infrastructure. However, few if any have ventured into the rural areas to offer ICT solutions that can enable people living upcountry benefit from the growing technology. It is even the same with countries, like India and Nepal. Our model is, therefore, to figure out how to provide rural population access to wireless services, but we also get some small benefit.

The main reason why there’s no coverage is because power in these areas is unreliable, if it exists at all. 

Someone has to use diesel to get connected which is very expensive. More people are also in towns than in rural areas, so it is costly to run the site. This (cost) could even be more than the revenue one can get from subscribers…the situation scares away investors. More so, the traditional cellular model is not cost-effective in these areas.

Our approach is combining the technical and business model innovations. Technical innovation is extremely low power at just 50W of power, while transmitting 2GSM carriers, enabling it to run using alternative energy sources such as solar, or on battery for extended periods of time. 

This business model innovation is wholesale, and we don’t have any subscribers; we only work with carriers to extend their networks to the rural. This way, more people in the rural areas will get affordable wireless services for businesses. We are looking at putting up 10 million poles across the country in coming years, which will enable us to cover most rural locations and small towns. We will also put dedicated solar energy towers in place to power these facilities.

What’s your target market?

We are targeting all the places, especially in rural areas, where they don’t have good coverage. That’s all our target market. We have so far identified about a million people without good coverage countrywide, but we will start with about 376 rural locations.

What are some of the challenges for countries rolling out wireless infrastructure?

Most countries, including Rwanda have done a good job in urban areas, but the challenge is with rural areas where people can’t afford these services due to low disposable income. The other big problem is lack of power, meaning that thermal power is the likely alternative source of energy.

However, building and operating wireless networks using diesel is too expensive and is associated with high-security risks. Using diesel also impacts negatively on the environment, and site maintenance is time-consuming and expensive as most remote towns are connected by bad roads.

How affordable is the solution you are rolling out?

I think the consumers won’t experience anything different other than the services local carriers like Airtel, MTN and Tigo are offering. It’s affordable, and we also think we have reduced costs significantly even if the return on investment is less than one US dollar.

As many African firms embrace technology, some have adopted solutions that are not relevant to their markets. So, have you tested your technology here yet?

We have spent three years working on the project so far. In fact, we have been working closely with the Ministry of ICT and Youth and the Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority. This is important to ascertain the relevance of the solution, and I think this is where many firms have failed. For us we can say we have done enough homework before project rollout. All the engineering and technical aspects of the system have been tested and the design and technology suit the local conditions. We did a one-year trial in Zambia working with two sites and two remote areas with no coverage, running through high temperatures throughout the dry season.

Any opportunities for local business people and professionals in your investment?

Absolutely. We cannot work using people from outside yet we want to empower the local people and benefit local professionals. In fact, we are hiring personnel right now, including engineers, administrators, people who will be doing the deployments, and other aspects like maintenance, among others. We will need more people next year once we start operations.

How best can African countries increase connectivity, especially in rural areas?

It’s a process, and it is actually the problem we and other firms are trying to solve. All carriers have done a good job extending their networks as far as conventional technology will let them.