The right to Internet access, also known as the right to broadband or freedom to connect is a human right (United Nations, 2016). Internet access is an enabler of economic development.
The COVID-19 pandemic has fuelled the need for the extra effort to ensure connectivity reaches the last mile. A report titled “Last Mile Connectivity in the Context of COVID-19” prepared by an International Telecommunications Union expert – Mr. Travis Heneveld points out the challenges of the last mile connectivity (LMC) beyond the traditional issues. In developing markets, a long path still needs to be walked to address these traditional challenges, which include - affordability, closing the Internet usage gap and building enough capacity for the digital skills. Hopefully, the sense of urgency injected by the COVID-19 pandemic will awaken the pace of doing things by policy makers, innovators and all the other stakeholders in these markets.
Kenya, the biggest economy in Eastern and Central Africa, the third largest economy in Sub-Saharan Africa (6th biggest in Africa) has demonstrated a rapidly growing vibrant tech ecosystem. Despite the efforts of the tech makers, entrepreneurs and innovators, who are largely concentrated in the capital - Nairobi, a lot still needs to be done to boost their initiatives to push for the realisation of Vision 2030 and the UN sustainable development goals (SDGs). Notably, most of these tech startup initiatives are based on software innovation, with a few of them doing work on electronics hardware and quite a majority of them trying to establish what their service domains should be. It is immensely evident that apart from extension services provided by some startups for Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and Mobile Network Operators, there is little startup development in the arena of infrastructure and connectivity.
The global conversations of driving connectivity beyond the current status is taking shape at a faster rate with China, the US, the UK and South Korea having made a huge leap of the fifth generation of mobile network (5G). In China, work on 6G (95 GHz to 275 GHz with data rates of 100Gbps) has already began. The work being championed by the Dynamic Spectrum Alliance (DSA) on spectrum sharing – TV white spaces (TVWS), Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS), WiFi 6 e.t.c is enormously significant in advancing future wireless Internet access initiatives to bridge the digital divide as well. While applauding the efforts by the Kenyan government to participate in these new paradigms of connectivity for enhanced access to Internet by its population, it is equally important to note that less technical developments in this regard is currently taking place in the country. The development of the draft framework for TVWS and the collaborations on the Google Loon project, perhaps demonstrate the gradual pace that Kenya is picking things up. A lot of work, albeit needs to be done, even on the Industrial, Scientific and Medical (ISM) bands for Low-power wide area network deployments for Internet of Things, particularly to the rural areas, which form the larger part of the country.
Tungana, an infrastructure and connectivity startup, has been carrying out research on the best model that brings the rural areas online and expand the adoption of the Internet of Things (IoT). The startup is also looking into technical developments of the new era of telecommunications and the usage of the radio frequency spectrum. Under an R&D project dubbed – “The Wireless Planet”, Tungana intends to engage and collaborate with relevant groups to advance the efforts of last mile wireless internet access. The vision is to break down the existing huge barrier of the digital skills between the urban and rural Kenya, open up the rural markets to reduce the congestion in the cities and enable the realisable deployment and expansion of the Internet of Things.
Presently, Tungana has rolled out modern cyber cafes in both Yala (Siaya County) and Nyeri Town (Nyeri County) to allow students and the public to access fast speed internet spots. The Nyeri cyber café runs on Raspberry Pi 4’s which also allows a set of the students to be introduced to elementary hardware and software for IoT. Both spaces have LoRaWAN gateways backhauled to enable IoT deployments on LPWAN. As these pick up, Tungana believes that the push for a connected Kenya will unlock new opportunities that results into new descent jobs and new businesses. We believe that devolution of resources and services in Kenya must be looked at with wider lenses beyond financial resources, amenities, roads, among others, to encompass internet access.