A pilot project to introduce payphones, connected to satellite networks, is providing telephone services to remote communities and helping to develop the telecoms market in Zambia.
The unprecedented success of mobile phones across Africa is well documented and clear for anyone to see. But leave the cities and main roads, and the mobile phone is quickly transformed from an economic success-making tool into an interesting but essentially useless accessory. Cellular coverage is rapidly lost as the population density decreases and distances increase. So how do we ensure that the people in rural areas of ACP countries do not miss out on a service that is enhancing the lives of millions of people across the rest of the developing world?
For those of us fortunate enough enjoy the latest mobile technology – 3G (third generation), soon to be 4G – it is easy to forget where telephone communication started – with the humble payphone. I’m sure many a billionaire today can recall the days he or she stood at a payphone with a handful of coins waiting to make that essential call that one day brought them success. But it is this simple payphone that could be the first step on the journey to 4G technology for rural Africa.
At the moment, only high-frequency, shortwave radio and satellite networks offer effective means of communication in much of rural Africa. Due to their high cost, however, these networks and products are the preserve of wealthy corporations and governments.
To provide an alternative, Connect Africa has teamed up with satellite telephone providers, Iridium Satellite and Thuraya, to test a series of payphones and Public Calling Offices (PCOs) in central Zambia [see box]. In an initial trial in eight rural areas currently managed by the Zambian Wildlife Authority, Connect Africa is monitoring the activity and the demand for information and communication services. This project follows the successful test of two Iridium public phones near Zambia’s Kafue National Park.
Kafue is an area of mostly smallholder farmers, and was chosen because it is so remote and because the infrastructure is so poorly developed. We consulted three local chiefs, and they suggested locations for the trial phones and even people we could approach to operate them. We then trained two operators to manage the payphones, each of whom was assisted by a younger community manager responsible for their respective community centres. The community managers have regular contact with farmers as they also coordinate sales of their produce and provide general farming assistance.
One of these phones was solar powered and portable, which was useful on market days and special events when it could be used by people who wanted to do business. The other phone was fixed, and powered by zinc–air fuel cells. The price of a call was the same as that of pre-paid call from the national mobile phone operator and was readily accepted by community members. There was also a special discounted rate, however, for calls relating to community affairs, which are mainly agricultural, and this was well received by the farmers. The local high school was also interested in the project, as a permanent PCO installation would ultimately provide an internet connection – a key requirement for the school to be able to teach the higher classes.
For the scheme to succeed there has to be a reliable, continuous service, maintenance and good cash management. To provide the necessary support, teams of trained technicians, working in specially equipped vans, routinely visit each payphone or PCO and their operators. The technicians monitor, assess and service the equipment and provide any assistance the local operator requires. They are also responsible for the cash management of the phones and handle microfinance and moneygram transactions for the farmers and other people in the region.
The telephones were used a lot and consistently over the course of the trial period, a clear indication that there was a demand for a telephone service. This was one the main purposes of the trial, but we also wanted to identify local markets and discover which services each community required. As the scheme expands it is essential that communities decide on which additional services will be useful to them and what can they afford. They could, for instance, decide that they require internet and fax services, or voice may be sufficient. Through further trials and regular monitoring we hope to get an accurate feel for what people in rural communities really want. With more information we can then tailor our services to suit their demands.
For example, the community centres in the Kafue area already collect agricultural produce, such as eggs, from many farmers and sell them in bulk to traders from the town of Mumbwa. With an affordable communication service the community manager will be able to negotiate with several different traders over a wider area to get the best prices. This would increase the overall income for the community and will be particularly welcome in regions where the lack of a communication infrastructure means that farmers are limited to local buyers.
Initially, the scheme will generate revenue by charging community members a fair, affordable rate for the service. A fair rate means that they will continue to use the service. Second, Connect Africa will charge a fee to corporate and government service providers for coordinating and managing their services in new rural markets. Securing multiple revenue streams in this way will ensure that the rural service network can continue over the long term.
Another important factor that will determine the success of the project is the energy supply needed to power the payphones. We have been using an innovative alternative energy source, zinc–air fuel cells, to power the Thuraya PCOs. Each 12 V fuel cell costs slightly less than a lead–acid battery, and can power four LED light clusters (which provide enough light for a typical home) for four hours a day for four weeks or more. Recharging a zinc–air battery costs less than the price of candles for a month, and the power can be used and sold to charge other electronic equipment such as mobile phones, hair clippers, radios and low-power computers. These fuel cells are safe, environmentally friendly, efficient and, unlike lead–acid batteries, do not run down when they are not being used.
An added bonus of providing power in this way is that it gives the communities the opportunity to establish local micro-enterprises offering recharging services for the fuel cells. The project’s mobile support units deliver the materials needed by the recharging service centres, saving the fuel cell owner from having to pay the multiple costs of taking a battery to a recharging facility that may be far from the community.
We are currently forging partnerships with the satellite communication industry and exploring opportunities with mobile phone companies. The Connect Africa system helps to build up the local market and provide the knowledge and expertise needed to develop a rural network of satellite payphones. By working closely with Zambia’s Communication Authority we will also use the results from this pilot project to contribute to a policy and regulatory framework to help deliver ICTs throughout the country. Our plan is to then use this model to connect the rest of rural Africa, and other regions where connectivity is still low but very much in demand.
Expanding satellite telephone services
Thuraya, a Dubai-based satellite network, recently launched the ‘Eco’ call rate, designed to compete with cellular phone rates. Using an Eco SIM card with Thuraya’s Public Calling Office (PCO), a type of satellite payphone, means that relatively inexpensive telephone, fax, SMS, and internet services can be made available almost anywhere in the world, including remote rural areas. Other satellite networks with more extensive coverage than Thuraya, like Iridium Satellite, have taken note of the potential market in rural areas and are looking at expanding their services too.
Dion Jerling talks about Connect Africa and describes how payphones will provide farmers and rural communities with access to the information they need ( visit the website).