Connecting Africa

Kamal Mokrani, VP Global – Infinet Wireless talks to Teletimes at AfricaCom 2017

Interview – Khalid Athar


Khalid Athar: What exactly are you showcasing at AfricaCom? What solutions are you offering to the African market now?

Kamal Mokrani: Africa, if you don’t already know, is a Radio jungle. There is a lot of interference in terms of radio spectrum and we have been very busy developing solutions specifically for this market to help our users mitigate this interference. If you look at the 5GHz band, a lot of vendors will come, sell their product, crank up the power as much as possible and it becomes almost impossible for everybody else to operate. This, believe it or not, also happens with any legal bands – you as a customer pay for this band and you expect this spectrum to be clean. Unfortunately, it is not – even if there is a regulator, it is so difficult to enforce it. So, we have come out with what we call “beam forming technology” which mitigates the interference and improves performance by up to 30%. Another technology that we are rolling out and is targeted more for operators is the 1 gigabit per second point to point connectivity which is aimed at the big operators, either fixed or mobile, for backhauling. When we talk about IoT or the 5G revolution that is taking place slowly, the biggest challenge for any service provider will be to cater to these millions and millions of devices that will connect with the internet. 80% of those will have to be connected wirelessly and this is what we are preparing for.

KA: Which products and solutions in specific have been successful for you in this part of the world?

KM: Africa, being what it is, has a big divide between urban and rural users so a variety of products work well here however we know that infiMAN 2X2 which is our point to multipoint solution has been the most selling product pretty much across the whole region whether it is Algeria, South Africa, Kenya or Ghana. This product is attracting most interest from our customer base.

KA: Which areas (both industrially and geographically) do you see most profitable for Infinet wireless in the coming future?

KM: We provide solutions to almost every segment of the industry whether it is service providers (fixed or mobile) or the enterprise sector, the energy sector, transportation and the government sector and all markets are working quite positively for us. From a geographical point of view, we are very mature and well settled in the Middle-East, Europe and part of Asia. We do need to focus more on the Africa market, the sub-Saharan African market and Latin America (for example Columbia just to give an idea). We are spending on a lot of marketing to create brand awareness and spread our presence whilst recruiting to help us understand and meet the demands of the market. From a profitability point of view, 3 years ago I would have said oil and gas sector is a major area but the oil and gas sector is not generating revenues for people like us as much as it did before. We are planning to bring out new products and a 5G rollout would be the gold mine for us in the sense that 5G will require 10 times more capacity than what is available. I do hope that our future will be 100% linked with the 5G revolution that’s happening now.

Many applications involving IoT and AI will require super-fast, super reliable connectivity with very low latency. That is where we could play a signification role.”

For the future, we are looking heavily into Artificial Intelligence driven applications. Many applications involving IoT and AI will require super-fast, super reliable connectivity with very low latency. That is where we could play a signification role. For example, in the case of driverless cars, we could provide a link from a drone down below to the command center (just as an idea). These applications that will be very popular in the future and might be deployed on massive scale will need a robust supporting network which enables the solutions and that is exactly why we are investing into a lot of research in this area so that by the time these applications become a reality, we are prepared to handle the network for them.

KA: How do you see the IoT market? What is your approach towards this market?

KM: IoT means different things for different people. For us, what it translates into is that we are going to have to increase the wireless capacity by at least 10 times in the next 3 to 10 years. So we are very busy developing solutions, as I said earlier, that can cater to these millions and millions of devices that will be connected.

IoT is linking up everything that needs to be linked whether its smart meters or parking meters, whether they are light sensors for switching street lights on/off or whether they are cameras used for anything from homeland security to speed cameras. At the end of the day, our contribution to an improved society is the improve security and the improve productivity. I am saying this because in Columbia and in Egypt we provided solutions that improved traffic so there is less pollution and less commuting time so people can get to their offices and go back home faster than they used to, giving them more time to either work that is productivity or more leisure time to spend time with their family or something.

If you look at it, through IoT or other deployed solutions, wireless technology can significantly improve people’s lives.

KA: Moving into 2018, do you have any plans in terms of changing your overall strategy?

KM: I learned one thing very early in my life that is if you have a football team and its winning, don’t change it. In light of that, I believe we changed course 5 years ago and we took a strategic decision to do what we do the best and it has worked for us unlike some of our competitors who spread too thinly and it backfired for some of them. We are going to continue doing what we are doing and keep improving but that doesn’t mean we are not going to look into other areas.

The thing about Infinet Wireless is that we are driven by market demand – we don’t make products and sell them. We understand what the market demands, we talk to all sorts of players in the market, make commitments about only what is needed and what we can build and then go develop it. So I believe we will continue doing what we do best and keep improving on the same. We will also develop technology and solutions for sectors we are not necessarily involved in today but overall as a strategy I think we got it pretty much under control and will be continuing along these lines for coming future.

KA: How do you see the wireless services in Africa?

KM: While Africa is seeing an increase in demand for connectivity in order to bridge the ever-present digital divide between urban and rural areas, the bottlenecks experienced when backhauling data streams by service providers of all types is still a major issue that needs to be addressed.

Comprehensive and well-intended rural rollout strategies still remain unaffordable today. High capital and operational expenses, coupled with low population density and lower than average revenue per user (ARPU), often results in the return on investment (ROI) only being realised ten years down the line instead of the desired three to five year’s timeframe.

In other words, the costs of delivering connectivity far outweighs the profits that can be generated in these conditions.

This is where wireless technology becomes an integral part of an operator’s strategy and to the development of the telecommunications industry in Africa. It is crucial for vendors to assist mobile operators in bridging the gap in order to successfully provide connectivity to the African population as a whole, with a greater focus placed on 4G and ultimately 5G connectivity.

Such wireless connectivity has a lot to offer to the dynamic and active players in Africa. It enables internet service providers (ISPs) to serve more effectively the rural areas, as well as provide more capacity to the bandwidth-hungry urban areas.

These innovative solutions are a cost-effective alternative to the cabled infrastructure which can be troublesome at times – for various reasons – in most African countries. In addition to being ideal for the harsh African terrain, the advantage of a wireless network is that it can be quickly re-deployed, as opposed to a cabled infrastructure that cannot be easily moved to another location.  A good example where this would be applicable is with a small business deploying a security system in rented premises: with wireless, the network can be dismantled in a matter of hours making relocation so much easy.

There is no doubt that there is considerable space for the growth of wireless technologies in Africa, with the main benefit being speed and scalability. Installation is almost four times cheaper than fibre-based networks and take significantly less time. Scaling up is also as simple as integrating another device into the existing network.

A compelling example of leveraging wireless technologies for boosting productivity is within the transportation sector. Not only does public transportation benefit from connectivity, but the rail networks and ports bring control, access, health and safety benefits to a whole new level of efficiency by deploying a wireless solutions.

Agriculture is another area where the need for ubiquitous connectivity is long overdue. Providing access to mobile financial services (to include mobile banking, insurance claims, etc.), voice, internet access, eGovernment and eAgriculture would clearly yield rapid development of this industry and wireless technologies could definitely become a framework for network offshoots towards rural and underserviced areas.

For South Africa, while the deployment of a 100G long-haul network across the country has already taken place, there is still a huge demand for access to communication with a competitive price tag – as highlighted by the recent #DataMustFall campaign.