For the majority of Africans Internet access is either unaffordable or unavailable. 820m Africans have no internet access. Internet availability has a huge impact on education, social inclusion, and commerce. Providing access to the unconnected communities presents a massive social and commercial opportunity.
Africa is 65% rural. Much of the rest live on low income. The population density and household income for much of Africa don’t justify the cost of investment for fibre and 4G for much of the population. As a result, the last 100 miles connecting from fibre to where people live is missing is highly unlikely to be serviced by existing technologies.
Poa Internet (“Poa”) is bridging this gap by deploying the Poa Smart Tower Network (PSTN). Poa Smart Towers are based on low cost WiFi technology and radically change the cost of delivering Internet, making deployment to low income and rural communities commercially viable. By providing reliable, affordable and unlimited internet access we hope to improve the lives of millions by creating digital inclusion and giving them access to information and services that they would not receive otherwise.
Currently Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) focus on densely populated urban areas with propositions targeted at mid to high-income customers. However 65% of the Kenyan population live in rural locations at income points that make MNO internet services unaffordable. Due to the prohibitive cost of rolling out fibre and 4G networks, it is unlikely that these areas will receive Internet access in the foreseeable future. In addition, ISPs and MNOs deliver via a direct to consumer model generating little direct local commercial activity or employment in the areas where they operate.
Our approach is radically different. We use low-cost WiFi based equipment to build wireless networks in rural communities bridging the gap between where access is required and where fibre networks finish. The technologies we use operate in unlicensed spectrum, which is cost-effective, yet can still deliver commercial quality services.
Instead of using a direct to consumer model, we enable local small businesses to resell and deliver internet access to their community. This localised delivery model will drive commercial viability, reduce costs and accelerate scale. It will also create local commercial activity, employment and the development of technical skills amongst rural populations.
We have currently deployed 15 Poa Smart Towers in and around Nairobi. These are in both urban slums (Kibera, Kawangware) as well as rural communities (Tinganga in Kiambu county). These towers support over 2,000 home customers and 25,000 public WiFi customers.
We also provide free Internet to over 100 community locations such as schools, health centres and youth groups. We provide additional services to these schools, including digital educational content as well as an opportunity for schools to collect credits to save for equipment.
We expect to reach over 6,000 home customers this year with revenues of over $0.5m
Potential to Scale
We have currently deployed 15 Poa Smart Towers in and around Nairobi supporting several thousand customers. Over the next 18 months, we expect to expand the Poa Smart Tower Network (PSTN) of approximately 200 towers across several rural communities in Kenya. Once the model is commercially proven, we expect to further scale to >2,000 Poa Smart Towers across the whole country. After Kenya, other countries in East Africa and across Sub-Saharan Africa can follow.
Our goal is to get tens of millions of Africans online for the first time. Ultimately, we expect these people to pay for their own Internet access as our pricing structure will be affordable to the mass market. We strongly believe that Internet access has to ultimately be commercially sustainable.
As we scale, and particularly as we expand beyond Kenya, we expect to increasingly work with a mix of 3rd party private sector and government players to deploy our network and services.
We are a commercial organisation and expect to finance the business through a combination of equity and debt, supplemented by grant / donor funding where appropriate.
Some of the key challenges are:
- Power availability
- Ensuring long term sustainability
finding enough micro-entrepreneurs fast enough that sell fast enough
- Driving down capital and operating costs to both reduce costs to customers and ensure long term profitability.
- Whilst substantially cheaper than other technologies, our approach is still relatively capital intensive (see above, this is capital intensive infrastructure)