Challenges Shaping Strategy
The impact of logistical realities on the African towerco
The African telco market is experiencing unprecedented growth. There is rapid digitalisation across all industries, an explosion of internet-connected things and significant data demands from an increasingly mobile world. This is happening amidst a perfect storm of climate change and energy inflation. The infrastructure and operations of today’s mobile towers is not sufficient to meet these demands in a resilient, efficient and sustainable way. TowerCo infrastructure and operations need to change. The time is now for a paradigm shift and closed loop Artificial Intelligence (AI), driven by data science, is the force for transformation.
In developing nations, smartphone and mobile data use is following an upwards curve of increased availability and affordability. By the end of 2021, despite difficult macroeconomic conditions and low income levels, Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) had 515 million people subscribed to mobile services – an increase of almost 20 million on 2020 and over 60 million on 2018. According to the GSMA, there will be nearly 100 million new subscribers by 2025, taking the total number of subscribers to 613 million (50% of the region’s population).
Mobile connectivity drives social change and makes a life-changing impact on individuals and communities. It enables involvement in the global economy, provides access to education and helps to lift people out of poverty.
The evidence speaks for itself. A study by the GSMA and World Bank in Nigeria – the largest mobile market and economy in Africa – revealed that after gaining mobile broadband coverage, the percentage of households living below the extreme poverty line ($1.90 per day) decreases by around 4 percentage points within a year, and by approximately 7 percentage points after two or more years of coverage. This decrease translates to lifting approximately 2.5 million individuals out of extreme poverty.
As well as transforming lives for the better, in SSA, mobile coverage to “connect the unconnected” is also a significant enabling factor for economic growth. Mobile technologies and services generated more than $130 billion of economic value added (8% of GDP) in the region in 2020. The GSMA expects this will reach $155 billion by 2025, as nations increasingly benefit from the improvements in productivity and efficiency brought about by the increased take-up of mobile services.
There is an urgency to bring unconnected communities online and telco towers are the backbone infrastructure to deliver it.
The pressure on the current infrastructure should not be underestimated. Tower networks across Africa today are often built on multiple generations of technology – some state-of-the-art and some legacy – and extended over vast geographical areas.
They are also in a constant state of flux, with new tenants being added, subscribers being signed up to mobile internet services in huge numbers, and equipment being swapped in and out or repaired. This is while at the mercy of constant change, difficult geo-political conditions, extreme weather, as well as hardware failures, theft or unstable power supplies in remote poor-grid or no-grid regions.
Meeting connectivity demands requires equipment upgrades, expanded capacity, power and operational resilience to deliver higher bandwidth at higher availability, with unbroken service and zero downtime.
The need for greater connectivity also comes at a watershed moment. Today, massive energy inflation is met with the ever more present threat of climate change. TowerCo’s are under regulatory and investor pressure to balance ‘always-on’ connectivity with an acceleration towards renewable energy and optimised operations.
Power provision in Africa remains a major issue despite the increasing investments in cheaper and more eco-friendly energy sources. TowerCo’s and maintenance providers are struggling to fully benefit from green investments and reduce the reliance on expensive and polluting fossil fuels for mobile connectivity. The heavy reliance on diesel use underscores the importance of sustainability for TowerCo’s in Africa.
The industry faces numerous challenges, including manual operations, inadequate data, and operational inefficiencies. These challenges often result in underutilised renewable assets, suboptimal power mix, and sites that are not adequately sized for the latest load increase. Field engineers often lack the necessary information to address the issues they encounter, and companies struggle to access reliable and actionable insights across their operations.
Against this backdrop, African TowerCo’s are an underserved market that is ripe for disruption with digitisation in the space of monitoring and optimised control of critical assets. The industry needs a paradigm shift, where field engineers, operational and performance teams, and capital expenditure priorities are determined using advanced data science technology.
AI-enabled infrastructure will be critical in helping TowerCo’s improve their operational efficiency, reduce costs and capitalise on the mobile data demands of SSA, with optimal Capex investment.
Highly targeted data science tools must be applied in a closed loop manner to optimise power management for tower sites. Intelligent AI-powered tools can help operational teams automate issue detection and fast-track the resolution of issues to deliver efficient operations, cost savings, and real-time power use reduction to drive down CO2 emissions.
Real-time AI can also optimise complex tower infrastructure at scale by using cutting-edge data science models to identify inefficiencies. By ingesting billions of data points, intelligent systems can measure and autonomously adjust thousands of parameters in real time at every level of a site, around the clock, every day of the year.
This approach can enhance the operational insight of tower network teams by more than 50 times over: detecting unseen infrastructure issues and automatically implementing thousands of minor changes. These optimise the use of power and enable proactive maintenance, reducing downtime and increasing the longevity and performance of existing assets. Issues requiring manual intervention can be flagged to operations teams in real-time, reducing mean time to detect and repair issues from months to weeks and days.
By enabling cellular infrastructure to be built and managed more efficiently, targeted data science tools can help accelerate the expansion of cellular infrastructure across the continent while promoting sustainable practices for a greener, more cost-effective future in African mobile connectivity.
A shift is happening in the industry and leading cellular infrastructure companies have already integrated AI-driven solutions like PowerX.ai into the way they manage and operate their systems. As more organisations recognise the potential of AI-driven solutions, the rollout of advanced cellular infrastructure in Africa can gain momentum, ultimately connecting millions of people, empowering communities and helping to bridge the digital divide sustainably.
With AI-driven infrastructure, TowerCo’s can maximise efficiencies whenever and wherever possible, drive down CO2 emissions to support net zero, reduce site management costs and expand responsibly and sustainably to mitigate environmental impact, while delivering for customers and investors.