At the height of digital migration, there was a lot of optimism on the opportunities available to people not able to afford the huge capital outlay that broadcast services require.
One of the things we were told was that with the migration, there would be available spectrum for businesses to use and better still, the white spaces would be available for rural area wifi services. White spaces refer to the gap between two stations; usually left to avoid interference.
The ideas coming from the ministry of information and communication was that now rural folks interested in newer versions of cyber cafes or wifi services could use the white spaces. The Communications Authority wasn’t buying in the whole philanthropic angle; it ha always insisted that white spaces don’t work.
That is why the story by Business Daily today is not shocking; CA has said that white spaces is the domain of signal distributors. There is no rule that a certain group of people will get concessionary rates when it comes to buying space; the distributors are also in business.
Some companies had invested in the white spaces as a way to demonstrate the opportunities low cost internet can provide. One such project was spearheaded by Microsoft and the ministry, while the CA felt that it was left out of the discussions. With the rates going commercial, let us watch and see.
The CA gets so many things right, except those that involve catalysing business outside the bigger players. It has done well to stay out of the dispute between Airtel and Safaricom over frequency sharing. That is after Safaricom paid or committed $55m to blocks on the 700 freed after digital migration. There is an impasse on the pricing and whether the sharing envisaged under the policy was for the big players and smaller players like the wifi providers.
Have you ever wondered why smaller companies buying connectivity from bigger companies struggle? Read Kahenya Kamunyu’s optimism when he launched Able Wireless then skip to his first blog outlining his frustration and then the more frustrations; rinse and repeat. Try and not laugh at the part where he disses Joe Mucheru, information and comms CS and the other luminaries of Kenya’s ICT sector.
Of course the CA is entitled to collect as much rent as it can, but it would collect even more if the companies thrive. Why not create another category for frequency recipients and peg it on radius? That way, we probably wouldn’t need the universal services fund to grow network in certain areas because these businesses will establish the business case. For instance, if a wifi provider in Tana river interests the local businesses, schools and the people, the big providers may just come with better offers.
There are initiatives to drive Huduma into every county but if there are private entities providing similar services; the counties can only grow more.
The question is; will we ever get the free frequency to roll out services in whatever area smaller players want? We usually think rural areas deserve more but there are other areas in urban that could provide opportunities.
The question of spectrum is contested, just read about the drama in South Africa, where people feel the impending auction will only benefit the bigger players. Of course the big players like Vodacom have spoken on how the economy will receive a major boost.
If you are interested in reading more about spectrum developments in Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Senegal, please read this paper by Steve Song.