feature on a local TV station a few years ago where residents would queue to make calls on a hill in a remote village in Northern Kenya remains stuff of banter in the telecommunications industry. It brought out the hard reality that some parts of the country had limited mobile telephone connection or none at all.
But that has been changing with Safaricom, Kenya’s biggest mobile operator, taking the lead in increasing connectivity to unserved rural areas through the government-run Universal Service Fund (USF).
Safaricom won a tender worth Ksh888 million from the Communications Authority which manages the USF and has been building base transceiver stations to boost network connectivity remote sub-locations across the country. Some 78 remote areas are targeted by the regulator under the USF funding out of 164 sub-locations without zero mobile network coverage. Telkom also won a Ksh350 million tender, while Airtel did not bid for the tender.
Safaricom has so far set up 37 of 48 stations it has been assigned under the Universal Service Fund which have expanded voice services in a bid to improve communication for residents in various parts of the country including Turkana, Wajir, Garissa and Kwale counties. The stations have also been set up in remote areas of Kilifi, West Pokot, Kajiado, Narok and Bungoma. In an area like Turkana, the project is expected to improve access to security, financial services and internet.
According to the CA, the project has so far covered 238,082 people as it aspires to get 319,298 Kenyans to the mobile communication network. The least covered parts of the country consist of 78 sub-locations, which were identified in a 2016 study on the gaps in access to telecom services. Most of them are located in the northern parts of the country, which is sparsely populated.
While internet penetration and ICT use has grown fast in Kenya, many regions are still outside of mobile services reach mainly because they are sparsely populated and were not commercially viable to mobile operators.
An ICT access gap projection conducted by a Canadian firm in 2016 says about 94.4% of Kenyans had access to 2G voice service, whereas 5.6% or about 2.66 million people remain unserved. More specifically, 5,657 out of 7,149 sub-locations are fully covered, while 418 sub-locations have less than 50 percent population coverage.
This is expected to promote capacity building and innovation in ICT services in the country.
Even on its own Safaricom in investing billions of shillings in expanding network coverage across the country.
Telecommunication companies, broadcasters and couriers contribute 0.5 per cent of their annual revenues to the Universal Service Fund, which is then used to subsidise projects that bridge the digital divide. The Fund is financing national projects that have significant impact on the availability and accessibility of ICTs in rural, remote and poor urban areas. This is expected to promote capacity building and innovation in ICT services in the country.
The stations will be owned by the CA for five years and then revert to the companies. This appears to be bearing fruit as CA data shows the value of voice traffic within and across networks hit 14.374 billion in the quarter ending September 2018, an increase of 29.88% from similar quarter in 2017.
The Universal Service Fund (USF) now standing at Sh7.1 billion, was developed in 2013 to provide a common pool of capital to fund connectivity in areas across the country that do not have access to the critical infrastructure.
The authority has developed a five-year USF implementation plan that projects that, by the 2021/2022 financial year, Sh10.4 billion will have been spent on closing the existing gaps.