The Death of Fixed Lines in Africa

-)Zulu telephone wire basket image courtesy of Ethekwinigirl

Today I want to push back a little (just a little) against the conventional wisdom that mobiles are the only communications infrastructure future for Africa. There is an implicit understanding in ICT4D work in Africa that mobiles are the future and fixed lines are an archaic hangover from an inefficient, monopolistic, state-run, colonial past. Perhaps I exaggerate for the sake of effect but it is hard to argue with when development agencies are racing to jump on the “mobile for development” train.
So let’s look at the evidence. Mobile infrastructure continues to grow beyond all expectation in Africa while fixed line infrastructure has mostly remained static or even declined in some cases. On the face of it, this appears to support the case for Africa’s “mobile” future. The implicit understanding in this is that mobiles are just better on so many levels that natural selection will cause fixed lines to atrophy like some vestigial evolutionary accident. I don’t want to challenge the remarkable value of mobile phones but I do want to challenge the notion that they are a complete replacement for fixed lines. Fixed lines are a complementary technology that have a role to play in any communications ecology.
What is a Fixed Line?
Before I go into detail why, it is worth unpacking what is a fixed line. Fixed lines in Africa are generally understood to mean the legacy copper infrastructure held by the former incumbent monopoly telco. So fixed lines already start off with a bad rap, being associated with bureaucracy, inefficiency, and incompetence. It gets worse though because the value of copper as a commodity has made existing phone lines a popular target for theft. This has the dual effect of making copper phone lines seem even more unreliable than when they were simply being poorly maintained and also disincentivising the fixed-line operator from continuing to invest in copper infrastructure. The final nail in the coffin is that telcos don’t offer copper phone lines on a pay-as-you-go basis. Pay-as-you-go is well-known as one of the key enablers of the mobile revolution but copper fixed lines are just too expensive too offer on a pay-as-you-go basis. Arguably things don’t look good for the fixed line.
But copper wires are just one kind of fixed line. A fixed line is just communication connection that doesn’t move about. Fixed wireless, such as the CDMA-based service being offered by Neotel and others on the continent is another kind of fixed line. One particular benefit of this technology is that it typically operates in a different spectrum range from mobile services which means that operators can deploy fixed wireless solutions without having to have or compete for expensive and scarce GSM spectrum licenses.  WiFi also has the potential to offer fixed line services.  The increasing availability of WiFi on mobile phones point to interesting possibilities in terms of mixing communication infrastructures.
So Why Fixed Line?
But still, why would you bother? The mobile phone so personal, so ubiquitous that it trumps the fixed line in every way… or does it? Here are a few reasons why I think the fixed line, if it overcomes currrent technological challenges, may be around for a while.
1) Sometimes you don’t want to call an individual. For any institution, be it school, police station, hospital or corner shop, when you call them you are generally more interested in being connected with services associated with the institution rather than a particular person. This is not limited to institutions. When I call home, I am happy to talk to whoever is home. There is almost a happy serendipity to whoever answers the phone.  Your brother that you don’t always get on with perhaps… a connection made that maintains social ties.
2) Fixed wireless can be cheaper than mobile. Not having to deploy ubiquitous mobile coverage means that fixed wireless can be rolled out at a much lower cost that mobile infrastructure as it can be done in a more boot-strapped fashion than mobile services. The fact that fixed wireless is currently mostly deployed by existing telcos using relatively expensive CDMA gear means that the full benefit of this option has yet to be realised. Full disclosure: I am betting that the Village Telco can offer fixed WiFi voice and data services in a manner which is both affordable and complementary to mobile services.
3) A full-size handset can be a beautiful thing. A handset that comfortably isolates the ear are not necessary in a fixed line solution. I note with interest companies like Native Union and SparkFun that connect a traditional handset with your mobile technology of choice.
Summing Up
This post was triggered by reading that Rwandatel recently reported a seven percent increase in fixed line subscribers. When you think about it, it’s obvious. Both fixed and mobile solutions are useful. The challenge for fixed line provision is to be as cheap and payment-flexible as a mobile solution. As I have said before, the future is not mobile but rather a seamless experience over an ecology of heterogeneous networks. Emerging IEEE standards such as 802.21 and 802.11u offer the promise of interoperability across WiFi and mobile networks. See recent blog posts by David Isenberg, Bill St. Arnaud, and Brough Turner that point in this direction.
Finally, it is slightly ironic that from an ICT development policy perspective, we urge regulators and policy-makers to adopt a technology neutral stance so as to accommodate the always unpredictable evolution of technology. A more technology neutral stance on the part of development agencies themselves might not be a bad thing.