Embracing hybrid networks to serve Africa’s digital economy

08 December 2021

Fueled by a young tech savvy population Africa is the fastest growing continent on the planet and the focus of increased attention from foreign investors. As the only place with a birth rate certain to stay above replacement for a generation the continent is set to have a growing amount of young people as consumers and workers, a point not missed by its telecoms sector which has gained a reputation as a 21st century African success story.

While there’s a great deal of optimism in the region, infrastructure remains a challenge for telecom operators looking at opportunities for revenue growth. With mobile penetration at 44% the focus is on connecting the remaining 600 million+ people without mobile connections. However, in a region that covers such a vast geographic area, this challenge is no mean feat, and demands that network operators are smart in their technology choices if they’re to see a timely return on their investments. Connectivity on the continent is and should be a multi-generation affair where we utilise existing network generations, continue to upgrade to LTE, and focus on creating more agile core networks that provide seamless user experience, switching back and forth between network generations. This will drive revenue while creating a sustainable roadmap towards 5G evolution.

In Africa as anywhere else today you cannot escape the hype surrounding 5G connectivity and all that it’s set to bring to our lives. But while all the hype around connected everything, augmented reality and the 4th industrial revolution is all very exciting, the reality on the ground in Africa is that the high cost of deploying 5G technology plus the higher cost of 5G mobile handsets makes it prohibitively expensive for African operators. Of course, 5G will come but currently it accounts for only 1% of all mobile phone connections in the region and it’s predicted to reach 7% by 2026. With the average revenue per user (ARPU) at around $5 per subscriber, operators should focus their efforts on maximising coverage before gigabit speed and increasing their numbers of mobile subscribers from a rapidly growing middle class with disposable income, who will in turn drive the demand and pay for 5G network evolution.

While foreign investment continues to flood into Africa and the world’s biggest tech giants including Silicon Valley’s finest, Google and Facebook Meta pledge huge commitments towards supporting Africa’s digital transformation, the past decade has seen vast investments from Chinese technology vendors who have built around 50% of Africa’s 3G networks and 70% of its 4G networks. While this has been broadly welcomed, operators in the region and policy makers should consider how mature markets in Europe and the US have come to realise that ensuring diversification in their supply chains is not only good for competition but also an important aspect of national security that should be considered before it becomes a cause for concern.

Global communication networks are a mix of technology generations, and while this mix has often been seen as a hindrance to progress, rip and replace is a costly, inefficient, and unsustainable process. Multi-generation technologies such as Open RAN are helping operators evolve their networks and diversify supply chains, reduce vendor lock-in and add greater agility into their networks. In rural areas of Sub-Saharan Africa where ARPU is particularly low, Open RAN is being adopted by some of the region’s largest mobile operators to reduce deployment and operating costs. It promises a cost effect path towards 5G evolution while supporting previous network technology and the subscriber services it delivers. As with Telco’s all over the world operators in the region are facing greater competition from OTT players who continue to cut into their margins while sharing zero of the burden of maintaining the networks, so any way they can prolong the life of their existing networks and ultimately increase the return on investment from them is welcomed. Having worked in many ‘hard to reach’ parts of the world and deployed 4G LTE networks in Africa, Squire Technologies appreciates that connectivity before gigabit speeds remains the top priority in the region. While 5G offers greater speed LTE remains optimal for greater coverage.

Our recently released Sigla Platform is focused on network convergence and embracing the hybrid mix of multi-generation networks. Providing a bridge between network technologies in a unified signalling solution it enables traffic to traverse between new and old network infrastructure. Managing all aspects of signalling from routing and interworking, mediation, security and monitoring Sigla provides a highly flexible forward and backward facing solution that’s easily scalable as network demand dictates.

“We have over twenty years of experience deploying our core network solutions into networks all over the world, and Sigla is an evolution of our extensive product range. The platform reflects how our customers continue to demand highly flexible multi-product, multi-discipline solutions that provide greater control of their networks and promote agility in their business. Our most recent deployments have seen us integrate with Satellite operators to provide mobile connectivity to remote regions, deployments with innovative connected car networks and innovative IOT telco-in-box providers.” Sanjeev Verma, CEO Squire Technologies.

Sigla ensures that any network investment, whether it’s 4G LTE, 5G and beyond, doesn’t simply add further complexity and cost but works in harmony with existing network generations so the user experience right from provisioning, charging to billing and self-care remains seamless.

While most 5G deployments are on NSA networks (Non-Stand Alone) where the core remains on existing 4G network infrastructure Sigla provides network operators with a cost-effective roadmap to network evolution while enabling them to maintain products and services that depend upon existing 3G and 2G connectivity in the region. For more information on Sigla visit www.squire-technologies.com