A lesson in African Power Line Communication

I think that it’s been for the last 10 years or so that people in the US have been hearing about the amazing possibilities of running data via power lines or PLC. If PLC doesn’t sound familiar, it’s because Americans were mostly familiar with just one aspect of it which is BPL or Broadband over Power Lines. To date, it’s sounded a great deal like snake oil and to a large degree has fallen by the wayside. I hadn’t really thought much of it as it seemed to be dead in the water.
It turns out that it actually isn’t and in fact, PLC is very much alive and has the potential of being deployed in Africa on a large scale. I got this out of a session I attended at the BarCamp Africa UK which was coordinated by Andrew Boye and Kofi Abban-Sackey of Cactel Communications. In all truth, they were there to pitch the work that their company was doing, but at the same time, in addition to an introduction to their firm, I think that everyone in attendance was able to take away a great deal from the session about PLC in general. Given the questions asked be all of us, I think the potential possibility of this technology was largely unknown.
The biggest point that stuck out at me was the figure of technology penetration, in that power lines have a 55% penetration rate, mobile phone a 30% rate and landlines a 5% rate. Look at that. There is such a big deal being made about data connectivity via mobile phones in Africa when power lines already have nearly twice that rate! This is an untapped resource which could readily be taken advantage of, today.
Naturally, living most of the time in the US and seeing a presentation on power line connectivity, I had to ask, why is it that this would be viable in Africa? Yes, the ability to reach a great many more people is there, but we haven’t seen it implemented in the US and like I said, it seems to have just died out. I would never ascribe to the belief that something has to first work in Africa to then work in the US (actually it’s quite the opposite), but at the same time, the last group of people in the US to get access to broadband would be readily served by access via power lines as they are quite rural and not served by any connectivity options other than dialup or satellite. This hasn’t happened. Why? And how is this able to be mitigated in an African setting?
It turns out (and I was very unaware of this, although it makes sense) that profitability for a power line data connection node is the same as it is for cable, phone, or anything else in that if you have very few people on that node, you will have a hard time making any money from it. This is the reason that it’s never taken off in the US. While it would work great in a setting like New York City or San Francisco, there already is a great many options in these places and so installing it doesn’t make sense. Stick it in the middle of the prairie in Kansas and you’ll lose money. Where it would make sense in Africa, is a place like Accra or many other locations. The power system is already there and all you need to do is plunk down a node for about $200 USD, configure it and off you go. This is in sharp contrast to having to lay new fiber which could take months if not years.
Andrew and Kofi nailed their talk and there simply wasn’t enough time to get in to everything that they presented. We ended at their showing a map of a demo project they set up on the University of Ghana campus. There are obviously a great many fine details that were not gone through completely, but I came away from the session with a renewed interest in PLC and feeling pretty good that this could very well be a solidly viable connection option for over half the people in Africa.
A lesson in African Power Line Communication

2 Replies to “A lesson in African Power Line Communication”

  1. Sounds interesting but only for city dwellers. Most of Africans live in rural areas without electric power.

  2. I think that with any new technology, it’s always a “best effort” initiative. If it is the case that this technology can reach 55% of Africans and get millions more online, then that’s really not bad and has a bigger reach than anything else. Historically it’s always been a problem for those living outside the population centers anywhere in the world, whether it’s basic needs, protection, or these days, access to information. We can only hope that in time additional technologies such as low latency satellite will pick up the slack.

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