GSMA supports infrastructure sharing in the Middle East and Africa

Executives from eight major mobile operator groups have announced their plans to cooperate on network infrastructure sharing initiatives. The participating operators say they have made this commitment in order to provide Internet and mobile broadband access to unserved rural communities and reduce the cost of mobile services for all sections of the population.

The initial group of eight executives from mobile operator groups who support this initiative are: Christian de Faria, CEO Africa, Bharti Airtel; Ahmad Julfar, Group CEO, Etisalat Group; Sifiso Dabengwa, CEO and President, MTN Group; Nasser Marafih, Group CEO, Ooredoo Group; Marc Rennard, Senior EVP, Africa, Middle East and Asia, Orange; Abdulaziz Alsugair, Chairman and Managing Director, STC Group; Serpil Timuray, CEO, Africa, Middle East and Asia Pacific Region, Vodafone Group; and Scott Gegenheimer, CEO, Zain Group.

They collectively manage 79 mobile network operations across 47 countries in Africa and the Middle East, covering 551 million mobile connections, where many of the unconnected population live in rural areas.

“We are greatly encouraged by the shared vision of mobile operators and the common urgency to find solutions that will drive down the cost of mobile and Internet services and help connect the unconnected,” said Anne Bouverot, Director General, GSMA. “Unique mobile subscriber penetration is only 40 per cent in Africa and the Middle East, lower than the global average of 47 per cent, so we need to work together to expand the reach of mobile.”

The GSMA says that its position is that telecom regulatory frameworks should encourage flexible commercial sharing arrangements and facilitate access to government-owned assets at preferential rates to help speed up the roll-out of new networks and support the business case to extend mobile networks into rural areas.

“This cooperation demonstrates that the industry is committed to innovating in order to serve the billions living in the rural areas,” said Manoj Kohli, Managing Director, Bharti Enterprises and Chair of the Public Policy Committee of the GSMA board. “We call on governments to support and encourage the commercial infrastructure sharing arrangements that we aim to propose.”

The GSMA last released a report on mobile infrastructure sharing back in September 2012, although only one of the country examples in that report, Jordan, is in the MEA region.

Infrastructure sharing takes many forms, although the most common are the passive sharing of cell sites and masts, together with network roaming. The sharing of radio access networks (RAN) is only just gaining commercial interest, and core network sharing is not getting much traction.

The GSMA’s research in 2012 found that mobile network operators in developing markets would be primarily interested in infrastructure sharing to expand coverage into previously un-served geographic areas – a spot-on prediction. It said that this is facilitated via national roaming or by reducing subscriber acquisition costs by sharing sites and masts or the RAN. Infrastructure sharing is also increasingly being used in congested urban centres where new site acquisition is difficult.

However, the report warned that regulators must weigh the positive impacts of decreased costs, greater coverage, and improved environmental impact against competition concerns arising from a decrease in network competition.

The next steps in this initiative are unclear, although we have asked the GSMA for further details and will add them as and when they are received.

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