Remote work pushed telcos to upgrade home internet

When Covid struck, I was in my last semester of coursework, I had to purchase a Safaricom 4G home internet service for my online classes as well for my project. And I comfortably managed all this from my hoods in “shagz”.

For companies such as Safaricom, Airtel and Telkom, the huge shift in remote work and school meant the companies had to evolve to fight for new market share in the home fiber space that has delivered faster and cheaper internet to our doorsteps.

The Covid-19 pandemic forced all of us to live, learn, and communicate online. This was making reliable and affordable access to the internet indispensable. New opportunities emerged and many other Kenyan businesses were able to navigate the Covid-19 challenges. The pandemic was acting as a catalyst for positive change. As its impact eases across economies, the pandemic presented countries with an opportunity to deploy different regulatory and policy tools to improve internet access.

Safaricom PLC advanced Safaricom Home Fibre, Airtel enhanced UnlimiNet hybrid and 4G Pocket WiFi and 4G Smart Box.

In July 2018, Alphabet’s Project Loon signed a contract with Telkom Kenya. The telco sought to deploy high-altitude internet balloons by 2019 to facilitate 4G coverage. In July 2019, it received approval for commercial testing. However, due to various regulatory hurdles, it was unable to obtain final clearance.

Rural 4G, 5G tower expansion

However, amidst the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, President Uhuru Kenyatta fast-tracked the regulatory clearances and announced his approval for the Loon Project “in line with Government’s measures to respond” to the Covid-19 disruption, “to foster communication”, and to ensure “universal 4G data in Kenya”. The Kenyan Civil Aviation Authority also signed an agreement with Loon to permit its balloons to fly over its airspace. 

Telecommunications in the country have continued to connect people, facilitate ecommerce, remote working and learning as well as financial services. In order to meet the growing demand for mobile voice and data services, communications service providers continue expanding and upgrading their network infrastructure.

Noting that there has been a tremendous shift from voice to data, telcos are rolling out 4G, 5G and fiber infrastructure in rural areas. As seen during the referenced period, TEAMS upgraded their cable bandwidth to meet consumer needs.

The University of Nairobi even partnered with Telkom Kenya and issued every active student with a Telkom line. These lines were loaded with data bundles and was renewable every month. This initiative enhanced the capacity for students, who had no ability of purchasing various packages of unlimited internet. The package was helping them to easily access online classes as well as exams.

Read also: Are counties ready for 5G revolution?

4G-enabled smartphones

The Mobile Network Operators (MNOs), Safaricom, Airtel, and Telkom Kenya, have also taken a host of voluntary initiatives to offer cheap data packages and YouTube bundles. They are providing free data bundles to hospitals and improved internet speeds. They also provide zero-rated access to select websites, including educational websites. Additionally they extend packages to customers to allow them to upgrade their 2G phones to 4G-enabled smartphones.

Although the Communications Authority of Kenya has claimed to have “engaged” with the MNOs on issues of affordability, there is no underlying law that requires them to provide data packages or ensure continuity of service.

The Kenyan government, also lifted transaction charges on mobile money transactions below Kes1000 that set off a massive digital shift. Mobile transactions of less than Kes1,000 each, rose 83 percent to Kes1.98 billion daily at the height of the pandemic. This was as a result of customers largely splitting their transactions to avoid transfer fees.

While this was eventually revised, it has changed how many Kenyans transact, preferring digital currency over physical cash.

As Safaricom CEO Peter Ndegwa put it, telcos most critical support to the country was and remains, ensuring network stability. This kept the country connected and while at it the MNOs made good earnings even after the Covid pandemic.

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