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Frontier Opportunities in Mobile Broadband and Network Coverage in Rural Kenya: The Case for Kitui County

Introduction

Access to quality network coverage in Kenya is increasingly important in supporting the livelihoods of residents, given the increasing adoption of digital technology as an enabler to economic growth. Kenya is among the leading countries in Africa in uptake of modern technology and is transitioning into the digital economy. For instance, active mobile phone users in Kenya have grown by 7.7 per cent in the last half of 2020 from June 2020 to December 2020 while subscription to mobile data and the internet has grown by 7 per cent in the same period.[1] 3G and 4G population coverage in Kenya was 79 per cent and 31 per cent, respectively, by the end of 2019. By the end of 2020, 3G and 4G subscriptions were at 57 per cent and 43 per cent, respectively.

Figure 1: Mobile SIM and data subscriptions between December 2018 and December 2020

Data Source: Sector Statistic Reports, Communications Authority of Kenya, Q3 2019/20 to Q2 2020/21

Rural areas of Kenya have nonetheless remained far behind in mobile broadband and network coverage. According to the 2019 Kenya Population and Housing Census (KPHC), only 13.7 per cent of rural dwellers have access to internet while only 41.0 per cent of the population own mobile phones. This mirrors the situation in Kitui County where only 13 per cent and 43 per cent of residents have access to internet and owned mobile phones, respectively, by 2019.  Similarly, the Kenya Integrated Household Budget Survey (KIHBS) 2015/2016 data indicate that the main reason for the reluctant use of the internet by rural residents is lack of knowledge on how to use the internet. Further, the main source of internet connectivity for households is through their mobile phones. The main reason for lack of ownership of mobile phones by rural residents was that mobile phones were too expensive.

Residents in Nairobi, Kiambu, Nyeri, Mombasa, Kirinyaga and Uasin Gishu counties are the largest phone owners in Kenya in that order, while residents in Turkana, West Pokot, Samburu, Mandera, Wajir and Marsabit counties are the least phone owners in Kenya. Counties with the highest mobile users – Nairobi, Kiambu, Mombasa – are also the highest internet users. The same is true for counties with least mobile phone users.

Kitui County mobile broadband and network coverage

Kitui County rural coverage extension is a good example of how network and internet connectivity play a big role in enhancing livelihoods. Most parts of Kitui rural that have not had mobile broadband and network coverage since independence in 1963 benefitted from broadband extension in November 2020. Previously, residents had to walk for many kilometres looking for network connectivity, therefore spending a lot of time that could have been put to other productive economic activities. Insecurity in the area was rampant, given that it took a while before security personnel could respond to reported incidences.

However, with implementation of Universal Service Obligation (USO) by the Communications Authority mandating licensed mobile operators to expand connectivity in underserved/unserved regions of the country, many residents of Kitui remote areas are now enjoying the benefits of mobile network connectivity. Safaricom launched telecommunication sites in Mwanzugululu, Katia sub-location extending services to Mwingi North, Kitui County. Areas that benefitted from the coverage included Katia, Kanthungu, Kavaani and Ikime. The investment also boosted the quality coverage in the wards of Mumoni, Ngomeni and Tharaka. Successful calls have increased from 69 per cent to 100 per cent in Nguuku; 47 per cent to 89 per cent in Kasiluni; and 83 per cent to 98.9 per cent in Nthagani.[1]  

Kitui residents now spend less time looking for network connectivity. The time spent previously walking for many kilometres to search for network connectivity is now put to other productive economic activities. Boda boda operators have reported increased efficiency through improved communication with clients resulting into increased revenue. M-Pesa shops and shopping centres are now emerging in the region. It is also expected that mobile phone and accessories’ shops, internet cafes and mobile transfer services shops will be established, leading to enhanced job opportunities and increased revenue for the county. Security in the area has improved after the new developments in mobile phone coverage in the area. Residents can now make distress calls immediately to police officers who are able to respond promptly[1]. Kitui residents can now access online government services using their phones and internet connection, thus enabling e-services such as filing tax returns, registering their businesses and marriages, accessing immigration and civil registration services, among others. Kitui rural network coverage continues to present opportunities for improved livelihoods of the residents. The concept of improved coverage is beneficial and should be replicated in other underserved and unserved rural areas of Kenya.

The challenges faced by mobile broadband operators in the country – Safaricom, Telcom and Airtel Kenya – in enhancing coverage in rural areas include the need for heavy investment in capital-intensive infrastructure to enhance coverage of the network, notwithstanding setting up of feeder roads, power supply and customer care centres, coupled with minimal expected returns from the venture. This is an expensive venture to undertake, especially in rural areas as opposed to urban areas. According to the Global System for Mobile Communications, average returns from a rural cell site can be ten times lower than that of an urban site, while maintenance cost is double that of urban sites.[1] Therefore, operators who are normally profit-seeking agents are demotivated from expanding services into rural areas.[2] Insufficient policy framework to advise on rural broadband expansion in Kenya in terms of finalization of the National Radio Frequency Spectrum policy is a setback. Voluntary sharing of mobile broadband and network infrastructure as a principle of reducing investment costs in rural areas is just taking shape in Kenya and is faced with operationalization challenges. Some of these includes frequent power outage and poor quality of infrastructure.

Opportunities for broadband expansion in rural areas exist in adoption of various measures such as subsidies and use of single wholesale network. Subsidies can be direct, such as tax rebates. The Malaysia government employed subsidies in their ICT sector by providing a tax rebate of 70 per cent on capital investments in rural areas along with import duty exemptions on last-mile connectivity equipment, and this encouraged operators to expand coverage in rural areas. Single wholesale networks provider is where only one mobile broadband provider instead ofcompeting providers is licensed to provide connectivity services. The challenge with this is creation of monopoly in the sector.

Conclusion

Improved livelihood, inclusivity and equity are possible with advanced broadband coverage and uptake in mobile phone ownership and internet use by residents in unserved and underserved areas. Considerable effort by policy makers should not only recognize opportunities to enhance mobile and internet coverage, but also address challenges of digital divide.   

Authors: Kimberly Asawo, Young Professional, IESD Department

Benedictor Cheronoh, Young Professional, IESD Department

Photo: Courtesy of Communication Authority of Kenya


[1] How-Innovation-Can-Drive-Rural-Connectivity-Report-2019

https://www.gsma.com/mobilefordevelopment/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/GSMA-How-Innovation-Can-Drive-Rural-Connectivity-Report-2019.pdf (accessed 19th March 2021).

[2] Enabling rural coverage: regulatory and policy recommendations to foster mobile broadband coverage in developing countries

https://www.gsma.com/mobilefordevelopment/resources/enabling-rural-coverage-report/  (accessed 19th March 2021)


[1] Phone network opens fresh opportunities in Kitui rural

https://www.standardmedia.co.ke/business/business-news/article/2001394742/phone-network-opens-fresh-opportunities-in-kitui-rural (accessed on 19th March 2021).


[1] Kitui residents connected to mobile telephone services.

https://ca.go.ke/kitui-residents-connected-to-mobile-telephone-services/.


[1] Second quarter sector statistics report for the financial year 2020/2021 (October-December 2020)

https://ca.go.ke/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Sector-Statistics-Report-Q2-2020-2021-1.pdf (accessed 19 March 2021)  

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