By JAPHET NCUBE in Johannesburg

CONNECTIVITY offers limitless opportunities in the digital economy.

Yet Africa, which has the world’s youngest population, faces a plethora of problems, including lack of connectivity for millions of its population.

The divide between rural and urban dwellers, as well as the rich and poor, keeps widening as the digital economy takes over.

Too many people remain unconnected and are being left behind.

But something is being done to address this challenge.

This week ICT giant Huawei signed Partner2Connect digital alliance, a pledge to connect 120 million people in remote areas in mover than 80 countries by 2025, in partnership with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) at its Corporate Sustainable Development (CSD) Forum in Shenzhen, China.

Under the theme of “Connectivity: Innovate for Impact”, the hybrid event brought together representatives from government institutions, legislative agencies, think tanks, academics, industry executives and local beneficiary organisations of the “Connect the Unconnected” projects.

Among the guest speakers were senior leaders from the ITU and the UN, government ministers and regulators from Cambodia,  Bangladesh, Nigeria and Pakistan, and business representatives, customers and partners from South Africa, China, Germany and Belgium.

Bridging the digital divide requires developing ICT infrastructures to ensure nobody is left behind in the digital economy.

And Huawei is in the coalface of this infrastructure development,  venturing into new business areas including energy, ports and the cars for the future.

Huawei chairman Dr Liang Hua, speaking at the Corporate Sustainable Development (CSD) Forum in Shenzhen, China.

Huawei chairman Dr Liang Hua said the Connectivity+: Innovate for Impact theme of this week’s gathering aligns with their vision and strategy.

“Our vision is to bring digital to every person, home and organization for a fully connected, intelligent world.

“We aim to drive broader connectivity and pursue technological innovations to meet connectivity needs and enrich lives. This has always been an integral part of our strategy,” said Liang.

Liang added that Huawei now has six major businesses: ICT infrastructure, device business, digital power, Huawei Cloud, Shanghai HiSilicon, and intelligent automotive solutions.

“Each of these businesses leverages our core capabilities to provide products, solutions, and services to our customers, in order to achieve a fully connected, intelligent world as soon as possible.”

So what’s the Partner2Connect partnership and how will it work?

And in Africa, where too many people are not connected, and where the urban-rural, poor-rich divide is wide, what are Huawei’s plans and strategies to bridge that gap?

Liang explained that the ITU’s Partner2Connect, or P2C, is a global initiative that aims to connect and digitalize unconnected communities.

Huawei’s research and development is driven by two wheels: technological innovation and customer needs, he said.

“These have served as the driving force behind the products, solutions and services we develop,” said Liang.

“We have been improving local network infrastructure around the world to drive broader connectivity. Following our pledge to the ITU’s P2C, we will now do even more.

“(And) by 2025, we will bring connectivity to 120 million people in rural areas across 80 countries. We will soon start doing pilots in some select countries,” he said.

He added that Huawei is committed to building connectivity infrastructure across Africa.

Over the past 20 years, the company says it has built more than half of all wireless sites in the continent and laid more than 250,000 kilometers of optical fiber alongside local operators.

“Through these efforts, we have helped connect more than 1.17 billion people in over 50 African countries, and provided broadband connectivity to nearly 30 million households that lack fixed network infrastructure,” revealed Liang.

Huwei’s RuralStar project in Ghana, West Africa.

One of the initiatives, RuralStar solution, emerged in Africa.

“At Huawei, we have a dedicated organization that manages our business in emerging markets like Africa. Many years ago, a product planning team of our Wireless Product Line traveled to Africa and saw how much remote areas needed connectivity.

“But it would cost a lot to build telecom towers or base stations. To address this problem, we decided to replace towers with poles, on which our telecom equipment could be installed to connect communities with less than 1,000 to 2,000 residents.

“This became the prototype of RuralStar. Based on user demand in Africa, we developed our RuralStar solution through innovation and continuous iteration. We deployed it first in Africa and then in other regions all over the world.”

Liang added that digital talent is key to advancing the digital economy in Africa. Through its TECH4ALL digital inclusion initiative, the company has offered digital skills training for teachers, student, and young people.

“We are working with schools to equip students with the digital skills they need. Our goal is to provide people with the opportunity to obtain digital skills from a young age,” said Liang.

Liang said the digital economy is developing rapidly and having a far-reaching impact like never before.

He emphasized the importance of intergrati the digital economy and the real economy.

Liang said innovation in new digital technologies like 5G, AI, and cloud can enable industry and agriculture to transform and upgrade, driving their digitalization.

Cao Ming, President of Huawei Wireless Solution, said the company has dedicated teams with considerable experience in related innovations to address the unique connectivity needs in Africa.

“On the one hand, we need to extend coverage to more areas in the region to change people’s lives for the better. On the other hand, we should help operators protect their return on investment. There must be a balance between the two.”

He added: “As an equipment supplier, what we are trying to achieve here is to make sure the solutions we provide for the region are the most cost-effective, simplified, and of the highest quality.

“If we are talking about rolling out wireless sites in urban areas, the payback period is usually about one to five years, depending on the location.

” If we are talking about rolling out wireless sites in remote areas, given the smaller populations, which can be as low as 1,000 or 500, we still need to think about the payback period. So we came up with solutions that cost less.

The company replaced heavy towers with simple poles, and changed bulky power equipment like diesel generators into PV systems. In addition, they introduced ways to simplify O&M and make remote O&M possible.

Through these measures, they have managed to reduce both CAPEX and OPEX for deploying sites in remote areas and shorten the payback period to one to three years.

The concept of connecting the unconnected is mainly based on rural areas where the number of base stations is small and difficulties exist.

Cao explained: “Huawei’s leading, innovative solutions can provide connectivity in remote areas. Operators using our solutions can recoup their investment in remote areas as fast as they can in cities.

“This further motivates governments, operators, and partners to deliver connectivity to more people who are still unconnected.

“Take Ghana as an example. It’s the first place where we deployed our RuralStar solution. So far, we have installed over 2,000 sites, providing high-quality mobile Internet connections to over 3.4 million people in remote areas.

“When there was no network coverage, people had to travel several dozen kilometers to a town or place with a network signal just to make a phone call.

“Now with the network up and running, they can enjoy convenient services right from their homes, including healthcare, education, and call services.

”As our innovative Rural series solutions continue to reach more places worldwide, more and more people who are still offline will be able to access the mobile Internet and the services they need.”

Cao said the mobile communications industry calls for strong collaboration between devices, network infrastructure and cloud.

Said Cao: “In addition to network infrastructure, a wide variety of devices and rich content will also be crucial to the sound development of this industry. In some emerging markets outside China, despite the rollout of network infrastructure, we have found the take-up rate among users to be below expectations.

“This is partly down to the shortage or availability of devices, and partly due to the high price of these devices. We know that 4G devices can offer 10-times better experiences than 3G devices,” said Cao.

He noted that in South Africa, local users still purchase 3G phones over 4G phones.

This was partly because 3G phones are eight US dollars cheaper than 4G phones.

“In light of these facts, we call for the following actions:

“First, we hope that countries will introduce more favorable policies for providing affordable devices, including lower tariffs and more sales channels for affordable devices in local markets.

“Second, we also hope that governments can encourage the development of diverse data services in local markets, including those related to payments, videos, and online gaming.

“Third, we hope that governments will provide more policy support and allocate more resources, through actions like allocating more spectrums at lower costs and developing clear plans for delivering universal coverage.

“This will go a long way towards quickly expanding network coverage in rural areas,” said Cao. – Zambezi News