THE Universal Communication Services Access Fund (UCSAF) has financed tower building projects in rural areas, making them accessible on mobile networks, including Tigo, Airtel, Vodacom and TTCL, thus increasing their chance for becoming business hubs. In this interview with Staff Writer MARYCELINA MASHA, UCSAF Chief Executive Officer, Engineer Peter Ulanga discusses the success of the projects, technical issues and challenges for operators to set the ball rolling. Excerpts:
Question: Having financed construction of mobile towers in rural areas across the country, is UCSAF’s mission over and what guided you to locate such areas?
Answer: So far we have financed construction of towers in 443 wards, targeting remote areas and what we call under served parts of the country. UCSAF continues implementing new projects and we have floated a tender for 83 more wards. We use two methods in identifying locations that do not have network. There is the Predication Coverage Maps provided by mobile phone operators. We collect coverage maps from all mobile operators in the form of ArcGIS and overlay them to have one coverage map for the entire country. The combined coverage map provides a basis for decision making regarding areas with or without communication services. Another method is through physical verification of various areas. Sometimes we receive complaints from people residing in a particular area, then we use our maps to locate it and whenever possible, visit it to assess the situation.
Q: Would it be right to state that the towers have triggered a tide of optimism for ICT resources for commercial purposes? If so, what is your message to the service providers and others in the ICT business?
A: Yes. Extension of communication services through tower construction in rural and urban under-served areas has spurred demand for ICT resources for commercial purposes. My message to service providers is that they should now ensure that the good services provided in urban areas are the same given to villages. When this happens, people will grab opportunities that come with the services. Any service disruption will be quickly noticed as communication service would now be part and parcel of their life. Mobile operators should ensure that service is available 24 hours a day and 7 days a week, with high quality and affordable costs.
Q: Why did UCSAF opt for 2G towers in rural areas while in urban centres, network providers are racing to instal high speed 4G?
A: The Fund did not opt for 2G communication towers. During the tendering process, the bidding document stated that the Fund applies technology neutrality. Operators were free to use any technology as long as service would be provided to users. So, though these towers are in 2G, it is very easy for operators to upgrade their network to 3G or 4G and LTE by just changing radio, without tampering with the expensive tower structure.
Q: Does UCSAF monitor the daily operations at its towers?
A: Technically, UCSAF is not in-charge of any activities at the towers. The Tanzania Communication Regulatory Authority (TCRA) regulates all communications matters. However, according to the contract we have with the network service providers, no one is supposed to remove the towers before a period of five years elapses. This is because we believe that after years the towers will be economically viable and operators will start making profit.
Q: Can the service providers share one tower to avoid costs?
A: Mobile operators are encouraged to share towers. Actually, nowadays they do it more often than they did in early 2000. It is cost-effective to share towers than to compete building the structures everywhere. However, if the height required is already used by the host network, then a tenant has no other option but build another tower. Also, there is another limitation. If already two or three operators have shared a tower, there would be no room for another provider as this will exceed the required load.
Q: What is the distance recommended from one tower to another?
A: One tower can serve a radius of 11 kilometres. So towers can safely be constructed and spaced at a 22km distance. However, there are other factors that may influence distance. If there are heavy vegetations or hills around this particular area, distance covered can be reduced. Also the technology used may determine distance. For instance if a particular tower is using 1800 MHz frequency and an other is using 900MHz frequency, the latter is likely to cover more distance.
Q: What is the recommended height of a tower and does erecting them at a higher location have any advantage?
A: The recommended height for towers varies. A transmission tower can go up to 72 meters high. But for normal coverage sites in areas with no hills and tall buildings, a 36 or 45 metre tower can work perfect. Yes, installing the tower on the hill can help cover more distance. However, people underneath the hill may miss the signal coverage.
Q: What is the difference between a tower with antennae and one with none?
A: A tower with antenna like a lump serves coverage sites. Normally the tower will have three antennae spaced at 120 degrees. Those antennae are the ones communicating with your mobile phone. On the other hand, towers without antennae, ie. with only drums, are used as transmission sites, i.e. to carry signals from one tower to another.
Q: What is the connection between the towers and the National Fibre Optic Cable network?
A: Towers are connected to the National Fibre Optic cable by physically running a fibre cable all the way to the tower. Also, the towers may be linked using microwave links.
Q: Some towers have security lights and others have none, why?
A: Depending on the location and the service provider, it is advisable to have security lights at the site. It will protect and safeguard equipment. However, at the top of the tower, it is a must to instal a CRAFT LIGHT. This serves to warn pilots that there is an object of such height in the vicinity. It is specially ideal for night vision.
Q: Are there any health risks if one stays underneath the towers for too long?
A: Yes, you may develop some health problems if you stay near the antennae for a prolonged period of time. However, there is no scientific proven study showing that the towers’ radiation can cause health risks, for a distance that is always maintained from shelter or equipment. Other people say that, we must be scared of our mobile phones rather than the towers as most of them adhere to standards, while some of mobile phones do not.