Bridging Africa’s connectivity gap through infrastructure sharing

Bridging Africa’s connectivity gap through infrastructure sharing

By Patricia Benlloch
Published: March 28, 2022

For some remote and developing communities, where infrastructure challenges can prohibit access to both broadband and basic electricity, there’s much to be gained from sharing of infrastructure. This practice is becoming more critical as the world continues to digitize, especially in developing countries where communications infrastructure is not consistent.

For example, in Uganda, as of 2019 only 9 percent of Ugandans living in rural areas had access to the Internet compared to about a third (30%) in urban areas.

Infrastructure sharing can take many forms – including the sharing of masts, sites, spectrums, and base stations by competing telecom service providers – but the goal is largely the same: to lower the increasing investment costs for supporting services. More critically, however, the practice is also proving fruitful in addressing challenges in parts of the world lacking in robust connectivity like Uganda.

Corning recently participated in a landmark project that took infrastructure sharing to new heights, tapping into the vast opportunities to transform communities with tailor-made solutions for the Ugandan market.

Bringing electricity and fiber to the village to Uganda

In June 2017, GIZ, a German-based development agency that provides services in the field of international development, led a “lab of tomorrow” design thinking workshop with the Rural Electrification Agency (REA) and ADVA Optical Networking SE, which explored possible solutions for Uganda’s long-standing energy and connectivity access challenges.

Their solution was a shared infrastructure concept known as “Electricity and Fiber” to the Village (E-/FTTV). This would combine the rollout of electricity distribution lines and fiber optic cable in rural areas of Uganda.

With support from additional stakeholders – including the Ugandan Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development (UMEME), The National Information Technology authority Uganda (NITA-U), the Uganda Communications Commission, and Corning, which provided cable and other materials for the project – their vision could be brought to life.

“Over many years of setbacks, breakthroughs, and milestones, it’s safe to say that problem solving is in Corning’s DNA,” said Werner Smit, Senior Sales Manager, Corning. “This project was yet another example of the connectivity challenges that can be overcome through close cooperation and creative thinking, and we were proud to play our part.”

The pilot site for the proof of concept was the remote village of Buheesi in the Bunyangabu District, located in the Western region of Uganda. REA was in the final stages of constructing a middle- and low-voltage electricity line, which offered an ideal platform for the shared infrastructure model. The area is home to several key local institutions including Buheesi Subcounty HQ and Community Centre, Buheesi Secondary School, Kiyombya Health Centre III, and Kiyombya Subcounty HQ.

These institutions have faced many challenges and limitations driven by inadequate connectivity. The school’s IT Lab, for example, runs on solar power, which has led to unreliable power at nighttime, high cost of data bundles for internet access, slow and unreliable internet speed, as well as insufficient data volume.

“We had been facing a number of challenges before,” said Kenneth Bajeenja, Town Clerk, Buheesi Town Council. “We were not able to print our work. In case we wanted internet services, we would go to cafes in town. Now that we have computers, whenever we need reports written, they can always be written on time.”

“Ever since we got electricity and these computers, typing work has been easy,” added Joseph Businge, a teacher at the Buheesi Secondary School. “Teaching is now lively.”

Overcoming deployment challenges with aerial cabling

Critical to the success of the project was the ability to utilize existing power lines to connect and extend fiber to key locations within Buheesi. Like many shared infrastructure projects, this helped to build the business case for rural deployment in the area by driving efficiencies in cost and overcoming the logistical challenges of building a separate underground network. Corning provided 72 fiber aerial cable for the project, as well as inline closures, terminal closures, and small wall terminals for termination inside the buildings.

Aerial fiber optic installation offers an alternative to traditional underground installation methods for the fast and cost-effective deployment of fiber-the-home (FTTH) connections in rural areas. Corning has already deployed aerial cables in Australia, Canada, Spain, the UK, the US, and now Africa, among other locations. This provides an attractive solution if underground installation is not possible or very expensive (such as in mountainous regions), or if there is existing infrastructure (poles or power towers) that can be utilized.

With the ease of installation and infrastructure already existing in many places, aerial cabling is speeding up the expansion process at a fraction of the cost and delivering long-term digital transformation for even the most remote communities.

Corning has developed a range of aerial cable solutions, including several self-supporting products, requiring no separate messenger wire between poles to support the cable’s weight, such as the All-Dielectric Self-Supporting (ADSS) cable. With broadband services enabled by robust fiber networks, instrumental in enabling communities to thrive in the long-term, these solutions can provide internet access in some of the world’s most remote locations.

The Buheesi project went live in December 2020 and each of the four sites now has a grid connection and internet connectivity via fiber optic cable. The simultaneous roll out of the aerial fiber and grid saves up to 40 percent of the deployment costs from civil works and right of way, while the ICT ecosystem expands the use of electricity by enabling the use of applications including eGovernment, eHealth, eLearning, and digital financial services.

A connected future for Buheesi

The cost savings, as well as the significant productivity improvements, have contributed to a positive business case for further expansion of rural infrastructure networks across Uganda. Critically, for the Buheesi community that has long been hindered by its lack of infrastructure, its people are now facing a more connected and productive future.

“It was a privilege to support the ambitious efforts of our many partners and to hopefully really build the business case for driving connectivity in remote areas through shared infrastructure,” said Smit. “With ample opportunities to replicate this model in other locations, it could have a big part to play in democratizing the global digital revolution.”

Read more about Corning’s sustainability initiatives here.

Patricia Benlloch is the Carrier Networks Marketing Manager of Corning in EMEA, taking care of the carrier space marketing programs. Patricia started her career in Corning Optical Communications in 2014 in the Customer Care department, moved to Marketing in 2017 working closely with Data Center, IBM and FTTH markets across EMEA. She specialized in the Carrier application and took over the Marketing Manager role in 2020. Since then she has led projects and activities across the EMEA region to drive demand and awareness of Corning and to grow trusted relationships with key stakeholders with a strong marketing presence. She holds a master’s degree in sales and marketing from ESIC Business School and speaks Spanish, English and German.

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