By Ishmael Mathinya, Executive Head: Operation for Vodacom KwaZulu Natal
Vodacom’s long-term vision, to have the widest and best network accessible to all South Africans, irrespective of where they live, started many years ago with substantial capital investments in our infrastructure. To achieve this, it’s important that we invest in the rural and township areas as well as the cities to make sure that nobody gets left behind. This is in line with the ideals that are envisaged by the National Integrated ICT Policy White Paper.
While Vodacom’s competitors are ramping up their capital spend to catch up to Vodacom in the urban areas, Vodacom has intensified its focus on rural areas, while we strive to maintain network leadership in urban areas. In our considered view, and based on a fantastic project that we’ve just completed in KwaZulu Natal province, the best possible model that is going to help fast-track the deployment of networks in deep rural areas of South Africa is through public-private-partnerships (PPP).
I made this point during recent site celebrations where the Vodacom Zululand team handed over seven new base station sites to Umhlabuyalingana Municipality. The event was attended by the Mayor of Umhlabuyalingana, Nkululeko Mthethwa, as well as scores of people from this municipality, representatives from national and provincial governments, Municipal Councillors and ICASA Councillor Paris Mashile.
The Umhlabuyalingana project came about a year ago, when Mayor Mthethwa wrote to Minister Siyabonga Cwele and ICASA, requesting assistance in rallying network cellphone providers to build sites in the area to boost coverage for the deep rural areas in this municipality. In April 2017, Minister Cwele approached the local mobile networks and appealed to them to improve network coverage along the Mozambique Border. By delivering the seven new sites to the community of Umhlabuyilangana, Vodacom is the only cellphone provider to respond to the call by Minister Cwele and ICASA thus far.
We’re in the business of transforming the lives of our people through the use of technology. To execute Umhlabuyilangana project, we partnered the national, provincial and local government and local business. Working on this project has demonstrated that if we’re to accelerate networks in deep rural areas across South Africa, mobile companies must rely heavily on PPPs.
Network accessibility for people who reside in rural areas remains central to Vodacom’s commitment of extending network coverage to all South Africans, irrespective of class and economic status. It is our firm view that broadband penetration has transformative power and is an enabler for economic and social growth and as such, makes it an essential tool for empowering people in rural areas.
The World Bank study concludes that a 10 percentage point increase in fixed broadband penetration could increase GDP growth by 1.21% in developed economies and 1.38% in developing ones.
Vodacom has already achieved 99.9% urban and 99.6% of rural population voice coverage and 99.9% urban and 95.6% of rural population data coverage. While this presents a tremendous achievement, we are now looking at innovative ways to connect the outstanding 4.4% rural population with data coverage and 0.4% population with voice coverage. What makes this challenging is poor available infrastructure and the very low population density, meaning that many base stations have to be built to cover the remaining rural areas.
Mayor Mthethwa spoke glowingly about this partnership with Vodacom: “The partnership with Vodacom should be celebrated for tackling the problem of lack of network connectivity in rural areas. Vodacom’s sites will help us to fight the rampant cross-border crime in our area and it is going to enhance service delivery as most citizens will now be able to use the Vodacom network to connect to the internet and access online government services. Further, local schools stand to benefit from this as connectivity will help improve learner’s performance in critical subjects as technology, mathematics and science studies.”
Paris Mashile, Councillor for ICASA says if more PPP partnerships between networks and governments are explored more good will come out of it:
“The deployment of networks in rural areas will help to enhance socio-economic development in rural areas. Access to the internet will help rural dwellers access services such as eHealth, eEducation and eCommerce. Moreover the Municipal Council can build community centres where people can go to access education over the internet – this will be key for driving growth to the benefit of people living in rural communities.”
The 2G voice traffic in the area has always been stable around 2.55 million calls per week. With the addition of the new sites and U900 (Data) roll out in the area, the 3G voice traffic has added another 800 000 calls, a 32% increase in voice traffic. Data traffic has been stable around 200 GB per week and with the addition of the new sites and U900 (Data) roll out in the area, the 3G data traffic has added another 2TB (Terabytes) - a 1000 % increase in data traffic.
In the final analysis, it remains our firm view that broadband penetration has transformative power and is an enabler for economic and social growth and as such, makes it an essential tool for empowering people in rural areas. Thus the work we undertook in Umhlabuyalingana presented us with crucial learnings. Paramount is that - to fast-track network deployment - we need government, business, labour and civic bodies work together.