As Kenya rushes to roll out the Ksh42 billion ($500 million) fourth generation network, questions have been raised over the timing and viability of the project given the slow uptake of the 3G platform.
Last week, Information and Communications Permanent Secretary Bitange Ndemo said the government is determined to have the network ready before the General Election set for March next year.
Last month, the government launched the search for a financial consultant to help in the formation of the public-private partnership to roll out high speed connectivity on a 4G platform.
The consultant will undertake a detailed financial evaluation of a partnership between the government mobile operators, institutional investors and equipment vendors.
According to Safaricom Ltd, the biggest mobile operator in Kenya, the country is not yet ready for the rollout of 4G going by the demand for its 3G network, which remains largely underutilised. Out if its 19 million subscribers, the number on 3G is less than 10 per cent.
“We launched 3G a while back and the uptake has been poor. What makes us think subscribers are going to consume 4G better? As a company, we would have already rolled it out if we’d recognised a need, but we will first concentrate on driving the uptake of 3G,” CEO Bob Collymore said.
The company has now embarked on a plan to supply the market with cheap 3G enabled handsets in an effort to push the number of its 3G customers to at least 1.8 million by March next year.
Telkom Orange also said the uptake of its 3G network is poor, especially because customers have limited access to 3G enabled devices due to their high pricing.
“At the corporate and SME level, customers have enjoyed the network, but it has been hard to push the uptake at the individual level. We need to make sure that customers can readily use the network before rushing to invest billions in it,” Telkom Kenya corporate communications manager Angela Mumo said.
Ms Mumo, said it was not enough to have a pipe without the content that will go through it. The 4G platform is a good platform that will offer users fast speeds and higher bandwidth for multimedia services but investing in it needs to be driven by demand.
Airtel Kenya said it has managed to get about 35 per cent of its customers on its 3.75G platform but admits that more needs to be done to spread the benefits of its current network to other parts of the country. Essar Yu does not have a 3G platform yet.
Timing is not the only problem facing the 4G project in Kenya. Other players have questioned the viability of the public-private partnership approach taken by the government, especially since it has not been applied anywhere else in the world.
In September last year, the government invited members of the private sector to form a public private partnership to help in the roll out of the 4G network.
The four Kenyan mobile network operators are among the nine companies selected by the government as co-investors in the project commonly known as the 4G Special Purpose Vehicle.
Equipment vendors include Alcatel and NSN with three tier-two network operators, MTN, Kenya Data Networks and Epesicom also part of the team.
The delay in the migration from analog to digital television has also complicated policy discussions around the rollout because 4G will use the spectrum that analog is currently sitting on.
If the project succeeds, Kenya will have set a global precedence.
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“We are certain it will work and this is the right time. This will be the first in the world where operators will share both passive and active components in the network and the benefits will be passed on to the consumer in form of cheaper broadband,” said Dr Ndemo.