The project, switched on in the presence of the Chinese Ambassador Ma Qiang and Deputy Ambassador of South Africa – Stanley Makgohlo, several cabinet ministers and lawmakers, and the central bank deputy governor, marries the world’s third largest maker of telecoms equipment, ZTE, and Africa’s largest telecoms service provider, MTN. But it is not the size of the cash – more than $76 million that MTN is investing — that is drawing optimism from officials and citizens but the impact. “What matters now is not the location of Lobonok,” Telecommunications minister Rebecca Okwaci said. “What matters is that people, even in this small village, are able to communicate.”
Down a winded road that snakes through a thick and hilly shrub-land, Lobonok and surrounding villages have been despairing for a network, in spite of the area lying ninety minutes from the capital and closer to the main trade route, Nimule. “The history of Lobonok has been very, very tough,” said community elder Ladu Tombe. “This is a big achievement, this is development, this is what our people have been aspiring for, and this is actually what made us to go to the bush to fight.”
During the 2010 election campaigns, access to a network was one of the village’s demands. “After the elections we went knocking on the doors of these service providers for network,” Tombe said. “Unfortunately, none of them responded. Only MTN promised to come since three years ago. So, our people have been waiting: when is this MTN coming, until they almost gave up. When you are giving up, they come.”
Erecting the infrastructure will spur other benefits. “We hope that the people of Lobonok will take advantage of this communication to enable them enhance their livelihood,” the CEO said. “The range of services that we offer will enable the community to achieve more, much faster and cost efficiently.”
The base station, equipped with 3G internet and solar energy as an alternate to a diesel engine in a country where most towers still rely on generators and batteries, has a 25km radius reach. “It’s very important that the surrounding of the capital city is provided with a network because as we talk now [villages] like Lokelele, which is currently experiencing child abduction, have no network,” said Juba Commissioner Stephen Wani.
But implementing the project has been challenging.
“You have seen that, for instance, for us to run the network, we must invest in electricity, and as such we are very supportive of government initiatives to invest in this infrastructure, like hydropower electricity, so that instead of spending money on generators, we can spend it on building even more networks in future,” Besiimire said.
Some of the places companies have to go to have no roads. “We have trucks that are stuck in places like Rumbek because we have to move heavy equipment, like this tower,” the CEO added, “and now, during the rainy season, equipment is stuck for days and we lose a lot of time.”
And companies still face foreign exchange allocation challenges. “All this equipment has to be paid for in US Dollars – and currently it is very difficult to get this,” the CEO said.
The infrastructural challenge has forced service providers to concentrate on densely populated, highly commercial, urban centers where installation and running costs are cheaper. “Today, we are proud to lead the way in extending our services to the hinterland by launching our service in this community of Lobonok,” the CEO said. “MTN’s approach in all the countries we operate in has been to establish national networks and to ensure deep penetration of our services into the population as opposed to concentrating only in the urban areas and the towns.”
And, the regulatory challenge has forced investors to slow down. For instance, MTN only recently got official recognition of its operating licence. “It has taken us some time,” South African Deputy Ambassador Stanley Makgohlo said. “I am very happy because, through this, it would allow the MTN Board in South Africa to release the necessary funds for investment.”
But Okwaci said government is moving fast to fix a dizzying regulatory framework, adding that a policy for the regulatory body to pay attention to telecommunication firms’ challenges was concluded Friday. “We are happy that this has happened, and very soon the regulator will be put in place,” Okwaci said.
“It’s important that we are launching this when our President has gone to Addis and, with his big heart, signed an agreement that is a message that, ‘in this government we want peace. And when we have peace we can have the things we have talked about,” said the minister.
“This is a government for development,” added Vice President Igga.
According to the World Bank, Africa has some 650 million mobile phone subscribers, a number bigger than in the US and the EU.
“It’s developing faster than TV, definitely faster than electricity, and more people have access to telecommunications than they even do to clean water and sanitation,” Besiimire said. “It shows you how fast this technology is moving and how everybody has a need for communication.”
About the MTN Group
The MTN Group is a leading emerging market operator, connecting subscribers in 22 countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. MTN South Sudan continues to offer telecom packages to connect the country to the rest of the world. The Group operates in Afghanistan, Benin, Botswana, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Cyprus, Ghana, Guinea Bissau, Guinea Republic, Iran, Liberia, Nigeria, Republic of Congo (Congo Brazzaville), Rwanda, South Africa, Sudan, South Sudan, Swaziland, Syria, Uganda, Yemen and Zambia.
Contacts: Mr. Gasper Mbowa – 0922904004