Mobile operator races to connect marginalized areas to the rest of Kenya

Safaricom has now commissioned 30 stations out of the 48 it is building under the Universal Service Fund (USF) as it races to get marginalised areas access mobile services.

The telco says in its 2018 Sustainable Business report that it began the challenge of constructing and commissioning of 48 2G enabled new Base Transceiver Stations (BTS) in under served areas in 2017.

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The firm was awarded the tender to deliver the BTS by the CA as part of its initiative to use the Universal Service Fund (USF) to close ‘2G gaps’ around the nation.

“The USF was created to support widespread access to ICT services and the ‘2G gap’ initiative aims to ensure that that there is mobile voice and data coverage in even the most inaccessible and isolated areas of the country,” Safaricom says in its sustainability report. A sustainability report gives information about economic, environmental, social and governance performance. It goes beyond the financial statements that are required by law. Safaricom is a market leader in embracing sustainability reports in the region.

“In spite of the onerous logistical challenges involved, we are pleased to report that we have already commissioned 30 of the 48 sites,” the report adds in part.

The Universal Service Fund was set up to incentivize mobile operators to put base stations in areas that do not make financial sense due to low population or cost of investment. Areas that have benefited from such investments include Mageta Island, Baragoi, and Narok County.  For instance, before Mageta Island was connected locals as well as government officials had to travel for 106kilometres to Maralal to send emails.

The story is nearly the same for residents of Kapedo in Turkana County, whose lack of network helped make the area one of the most dangerous parts of the country. But this is now in the past.

Such investments have helped grow the rural locations and support penetration of other mobile services such as Safaricom’s revolutionary mobile money service Mpesa. Relatives of residents in such areas from as far as the diaspora now can easily send money home.  

Other industries that depend on communication services have also been established. Security for such areas has also been beefed up since residents can now easily make calls to police officers in cases of distress or cattle rustling attacks that have characterised some of the arid and semi-arid areas for decades.

Safaricom and Telkom Kenya are the most aggressive mobile firms in the country in placing bids to set up base stations in far flung and underserved areas. Latest data shows that Safaricom has so far accessed Sh880 million while Telkom Kenya has received about Sh350milion to put up base stations.

Expansion of network is still the most capital intensive exercise for mobile operators, taking in billions of shillings a year.

The Communications regulator says the objectives of the USF as provided in the Kenya Information and Communications Regulations 2010, Universal Access and Service include to promote communications infrastructure and services rollout in rural, remote and under-served areas.

The fund is also supposed to ensure availability of communication services to Persons with Disabilities, women and other vulnerable groups as well as support the development of capacity building in ICTs and technological innovation.

The other objective of the fund is to support expansion of communication services to schools, health facilities and other organizations serving public needs; and facilitate development of and access to a wide range of local and relevant content.

“The Authority shall ensure that utilization of the Fund is transparent to the public, and subject to independent audit. The award of disbursements shall be conducted through a transparent, non-discriminatory, and competitive process,” the USF framework by the CA read in part.


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