Anyone living in Africa and  interested in the future of affordable access will have spent some time trying to make sense of the complex evolving web of technology, regulatory policy, cultural issues, literacy, affordability etc that make up the ecology of communication infrastructure.  Fortunately the market has sorted out a big chunk of that out for us.  The future is mobile.  Even your mother knows that the future is mobile.  And mobile phones are evolving at a pace that no one dreamt of.

But other wireless technologies are evolving at an equally rapid rate.  In the little over 10 years of its existence, WiFi has gone from 1mb/s to over 300 mb/s in performance and while performance has gone up, price has gone down.  Nowadays, you find WiFi in an astounding array of devices from mobile phones to laptops to music devices to printers and projectors.  Access to WiFi networks has also exploded.  Nowadays a corporate building, public institution, airport, or even a cafe without WiFi is becoming a bit of an anomaly. But WiFi is not a mobile technology.

So how do those important but seemingly divergent technologies fit into the evolving technological landscape on the continent?  Especially in the context of concerns that 3G operators simply will not be able to cope with the exploding demand for broadband access.  In the U.S. the data demands of iPhone users has at times overwhelmed AT&T’s network.  AT&T has experienced a 5000 percent growth in data traffic in the last three years.  They have noticeably struggled to upgrade fast enough to cope with the demand, although things appear to have improved recently.

Lately motile operators have begun to hedge their bets in North America and Europe with the introduction of technologies like Femtocells to off-load network traffic .  Femtocells are consumer devices which establish a micro mobile base station in your home and use your broadband Internet connection to backhaul your mobile voice and data to the operator’s core network.  This takes the load off the mobile network for the operators and, in theory, saves the consumer money.  It is also a good solution for homes in areas with poor 3G coverage.  Unfortunately, this technology is unlikely to spread very far in Africa because it is designed mostly for people with high-speed adsl or cable Internet connectivity.

WiFi, however, is another possibility.  WiFi is nearly ubiquitous on the recent generations of smartphones. WiFi networks can offer complementary access for mobile users.  Technically, this is already true.  You can connect to a WiFi network with your smartphone in cafes and airports although authentication can be a pain and Skype over mobile IP is a pretty variable experience, from blocked to patchy to hey I remember it worked once somewhere.

So what would it take to have a seamless mobile / WiFi experience where you didn’t actually have to pay attention to what kind of wireless network you were on?  Well, as William Gibson says, the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.  In the middle of 2009, Cherry Mobile, a Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) in Belgium, launched a converged mobile phone service which didn’t care whether your phone was connected via WiFi or GSM.  In fact, the phone would work without a SIM card as long as there was a WiFi network.  (Wouldn’t that just drive the RICA folk mad).  The downside is that this is a custom app that only runs on new generation Symbian phones.  Still pretty amazing though.

Will networks like Cherry make a difference in Africa?  Maybe but not as they currently exist I think as the solution is not generic enough.  Happily, the IEEE have been hard at work developing standards for making devices work over heterogeneous networks.  An excellent article by one of the smartest people thinking about the future of the Internet, Bill St. Arnaud, highlighted two emerging standards:

802.21 – The 802.21 working group is developing standards to enable handover and interoperability between heterogeneous network types including both 802 and non-802 networks.  This means that an 802.21 compliant device would be able to detect all available networks that it supports e.g. GSM + WiFi and would make the transition from one kind of network to another seamless.
802.11u – 802.11u is an emerging standard for internetwork roaming and authentication.  This would enable not previously authorised roaming on networks within a structured authentication and services framework.

If network and handset manufacturers start manufacturing devices compliant with these standards, things could get interesting.  While the obvious impact of these standards could be to reduce bandwidth demand on mobile networks, a secondary but possibly more significant impact would be to increase competition in mobile markets.  It would potentially allow for the development of bottom-up WiFi-based telephone infrastructure that could extend mobile networks or even provide alternatives.

Posted by Steve Song

@stevesong local telco policy activist. social entrepreneur. founder of @villagetelco #africa #telecoms #opensource #privacy #wireless #spectrum #data