WiMAX Watch: Broadband in Africa

What is it they said about the missionaries who went to Africa to do good, and did very well? The same may eventually be said of WiMAX service providers. For now, Malcolm Brew, technical director of Uganda-based Bushnet, says: "There is no such thing as the digital divide in Africa... All the technology, like GPRS, is already here. Where there is a divide is in the content that is available to users." Bushnet provides wireless connections to users in Uganda and is considered a pioneer in using HF radio-based email services in the Great Lakes region. Brew is blunt about his company's strategy: "What we are good at is re-purposing technology for local conditions. To date, our primary delivery mechanism has been HF radio signals and we have been providing a service similar to WiMAX but without the additional costs of WiMAX." The problem with WiMAX at its current stage of development, says Brew, is that it is too expensive and requires too much power. "WiMAX is not the answer yet. It may be soon, but right now it is also not fast enough or able to broadcast far enough," he says.

Brew's position on WiMAX comes from years of working in Uganda providing wireless and technology services. He cautions the industry and regulators to be wary of the pitfalls of over-hyped new technologies. "In the big cities like Johannesburg and Lagos there is enough money to make mistakes; it's easy to swap out units and fix problems. But in the rural areas you only get one shot at making it work. There isn't enough money to make mistakes. In most cases there just isn't any money at all." The trouble is not only cost: Bushnet is a technology pioneer in Africa, but Brew rails against the influx of new technologies, such as WiMAX, which he believes are not yet good enough for use on the ground. Right now, he says, Bushnet is using HSDN based on the MTN infrastructure to deliver its services and, for now, doing a better job than what WiMAX would be doing.

Brew warns against being prescriptive in deploying technology in Africa. "Rural African users don't need mobile WiMAX. They just need high-speed wireless connections. And PCs do not work in rural Africa; too much heat, dust, no electricity." The right approach? Broadband wireless access for Africa is key. Putting full-blown PCs into rural Africa is a waste of effort. Rather stick in thin client terminals that last longer and use high-speed, cheap wireless connections to connect to servers in the main centers where they will last longer. Which brings us back to WiMAX: Brew's approach underlines the critical value of affordable broadband to Africa, and this is where WiMAX can play an important role, especially in making possible wide area networks which use terminals--not unlike the much-discussed Inveneo model.

For more on broadband in Africa:
- see Alastair Otter's Tectonic article
For more on Inveneo:
- see its Web site

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