Ericsson forges digital future path: Embracing connectivity, inclusion

Todd Ashton, Vice President and Head of South and East Africa at Ericsson (middle), emphasises the importance of carefully considering the access system and argues that mobile broadband should be considered as a basic service and human right.

What you need to know:

  • The disparity in internet accessibility between rural and urban locations is striking, with only 13 percent of rural residents having Internet access as opposed to the wealthier 41 percent in metropolitan areas

Dar es Salaam. Tanzania is home to more than 60 million people, and the East African country boasts one of the region’s rapidly growing economies. However, a substantial digital gap persists within the region.

The contrast in internet accessibility between urban and rural areas is stark, with a mere 13 percent of the rural population having online access compared to the more privileged 41 percent in urban settings.

However, a multinational network and telecommunications company, Ericsson, is helping provide the solutions.

Its multifaceted approach to contributing to Tanzania’s digital and connectivity landscape, as well as the value of emerging technologies, could help the country tap into its full digital potential.

Speaking to The Citizen in an exclusive interview recently, Ericsson’s top management, led by Vice President and Head of South and East Africa Todd Ashton, Vice President and Head of Networks, Middle East and Africa Chafic Traboulsi, and Vice President and Head of Cloud Software and Services Middle East and Africa Lucky La Riccia emphasised the need for favourable regulatory environments and affordable devices as some of the ways to unlock the digital and connectivity potential in Tanzania.

Focusing on Tanzania’s scaling of its network infrastructure to achieve more speed, Mr Ashton touched on the fact that there was a rapid uptake of 4G after the outbreak of Covid.

“We saw Vodacom, Tigo, and Airtel investing quite a bit in 4G. There are many reasons for the investment, but I think people have started to understand that mobile broadband is a basic human right. But also, as you invest in mobile broadband and increase the speed of the network, there is a correlation to GDP growth,” he said.

The tech executive added that such investment enabled the Tanzanian economy to be resilient during Covid and post-pandemic.

Beyond economic growth, investment in reliable network infrastructure enables financial inclusion. Mr Ashton says that Ericsson has worked closely with the three major telecom companies in this endeavour.

But despite the milestones, the digital gap has become more evident as Tanzania continues to invest in modern infrastructure. As urban centres are prioritised, rural Tanzania is playing catch up.

Ashton admits that the type of technology and solutions established in urban areas are more advanced because the need for data consumption is much higher.

 “The risks that nations face are what we call the digital divide. You go into digital transformation, but all the people on the farm get left behind.”

Ashton highlighted how important it is for the government and stakeholders to have effective rural solutions in place and how connectivity acts as a foundation for mobile financial services, promoting financial inclusion, especially among women.

Touching on the aspects of affordability and accessibility, Ashton stressed the significance of keeping devices within reach of the average middle- to low-income earner.

He pointed out that if the core duties, such as taxes, make devices prohibitively expensive, it poses a significant barrier to entry for a large portion of the population.

“If you make your device too expensive for people to buy, then it’s very difficult for an average middle- to low-income earner to afford a smartphone to take advantage of the digitalization that governments are pushing.”

Ericsson’s VP and Head of Networks, Middle East, and Africa, Chafic Traboulsi, weighed in on the accessibility of technology and addressing the digital divide.

He said that connecting the unconnected is a matter of putting sites together and extending cellular coverage.

“Radio technology used in Dar es Salaam is the same as in Karatu or any other village. However, we realised that the main issue was building the site itself. So we develop new and faster ways to build sites, such as using solar panels instead of depending on electric grids. All the customers we work with can access this type of technology,” he says.

He adds that beyond the debate in Africa about connecting those in the interior, a consumer in Dar es Salaam and one in London need the same things, which include fast connectivity and the latest technology.

“So this is what we provide: by working with telecom companies, we expand 4G and 5G connectivity,” he explains.

Despite the rollout of 5G by the country’s biggest telcos, the issue of seamless connectivity remains a challenge.

“There are two ways to look at 5G: 5G gives you the ability to use extra frequencies. Most mobile networks are limited by frequency. We have the technology that would allow you to put 5G everywhere,” Traboulsi explains.

He underlined that the adoption of 5G is driven by users and handsets, underscoring the need for a comprehensive approach to technology deployment.

One of the key shifts expected in the 5G landscape is moving beyond traditional mobile broadband.

On his part, Ashton explored the importance of expanding the usage of 5G beyond consumer applications into the enterprise market.

Ericsson executives, from left to right: Lucky La Riccia, Vice President and Head of Cloud Software and Services Middle East and Africa; Todd Ashton, Vice President and Head of South and East Africa; and Chafic Traboulsi, Vice President and Head of Networks, Middle East & Africa, discuss Tanzania’s digital transformation and improving the country’s connectivity and inclusivity. PHOTO | COURTESY

The goal is to empower enterprises to build fast and flexible operations by leveraging wireless connectivity.

“We want enterprises to be able to create fast and flexible companies because they can use wireless. They have the flexibility. They can use a network slot. They can use so many other private networks to secure their operations and their businesses,” explains Ashton.

This highlights the potential for 5G to enable secure, dynamic business operations and allow for more efficient and responsive applications, benefiting both individuals and society as a whole.

In the laws governing network and technology services, Tanzania’s regulatory environment has been defined as forward-looking.

Traboulsi noted, “The regulator has provisioned the frequencies for the operators. This is positive. It helps digitise the country, connect further, and improve the economy.”

Traboulsi emphasised the deployment of state-of-the-art technology, ensuring that consumers in the country, regardless of their location, have access to fast connectivity and the latest technologies.

“When it comes to deploying mobile networks, it’s obviously kind of expensive in several countries in Africa,” he said.

For his part, Vice President and Head of Cloud Software and Services at Ericsson Middle East and Africa, Lucky La Riccia, while acknowledging that challenges may exist, says he sees more opportunities in the 5G landscape.

The ability to customise and optimise connectivity for specific needs, whether it’s enhancing performance, ensuring security, or enabling innovative applications, opens doors to a plethora of possibilities, he said.

“As 5G continues to evolve, the focus extends beyond providing a faster and more reliable service; it becomes a catalyst for transformative changes across various industries, unlocking new dimensions of connectivity and technological innovation,” said Lucky La Riccia.

Unlocking your full potential

There are still notable challenges and strategic initiatives Tanzania could take in deploying mobile networks, including long-term financing and affordable access for all.

Ericsson, as Ashton mentioned, is actively engaged in discussions with regulators and government ministries to advocate for the allocation of long-term spectrum licenses.

This approach ensures a collaborative effort with the government, aligning regulatory policies to provide enhanced telecommunication services.

In addressing the challenges of deploying mobile networks, Ashton emphasised the importance of long-term financing.

He mentioned partnerships with European investment banks to expedite deployment and urged regulators to consider the long-term impact of spectrum licencing on 5G build-out.

He said that by addressing financial barriers, advocating for favourable regulatory environments, and emphasising the affordability of devices, Tanzania is set to unlock the full potential of digital and connectivity value in the country.

Adding to that, Ericsson aims to contribute to a more inclusive and accessible digital landscape in the region. “The government needs to support investments in that infrastructure to make it happen so that even rural areas can get access to it in places such as schools and hospitals.”

As the three highlighted, some of the key aspects of Ericsson’s strategy include the firm’s extensive local investment and capacity building within Tanzania. Ashton emphasises the importance of being deeply rooted in the local context, with a commitment to empowering Tanzanians.

“We like investing locally. Of course, we do bring in experts from around the world, but the core of our business is people, and we like to be as local as possible,” Ashton said.

The company brings in global experts while concurrently upskilling local talent through initiatives like the graduate programme, which focuses on nurturing new graduates, providing them with hands-on experience in mobile communications and Information and Technology (ICT), and enhancing their employability, whether within Ericsson or elsewhere.

Beyond Tanzanian borders, Ericsson extends its impact by running businesses across Africa. Ashton details the cross-border initiatives, highlighting instances where Tanzanian teams are deployed to countries like Zambia or Madagascar.

This movement of labour, though intricate in the African context, plays a crucial role in capacity building, providing employees exposure to diverse experiences not readily available in their home country.

Additionally, the company actively collaborates with people and universities, fostering the creation of capacity for IT-type knowledge bases, aligning with the broader goal of advancing digital capabilities in Tanzania and beyond.

“We’d like to be as local as possible, giving more opportunities to Tanzanians. This programme not only contributes to the company’s profitability but also provides new graduates with hands-on experience in mobile communications, making them highly employable in various sectors,” Ashton explained.

In essence, Ericsson’s vision for Tanzania goes beyond technological advancement; it envisions a nation where digital connectivity is a fundamental right, fostering economic growth, inclusivity and empowerment for all.