East Africa’s biggest company Safaricom has in the past two decades contributed immensely to the penetration of technology to rural communities, gradually upscaling Kenyan citizens from 2G to 3G, then to 4G+ network speeds.

When it did trials for 3G in October 2006, not even the engineers could predict that in 2020 the company would be in advanced stages of launching Kenya’s first 5G network.

Michael Joseph, the chief executive at the time said subscribers would have access to  what was the highest mobile data speed of 7.2 megabits per second. But the technology was only available in and around Nairobi, with the initial 3G services initially aimed at corporates.

“This commercial launch confirms our dedication to ensuring that our subscribers continue to enjoy world-class innovation,” Mr Joseph said.

The previous 2G network that had been existing around the world since 1991 was too slow, and could only offer a maximum speed of 40 kilobits per second for mobile browsing, with heavy video downloads taking several hours.Safaricom’s launch of 3G was a relief to many netizens, as the download speed of a 4-minute audio song improved from 7 minutes to just 10 seconds.

The speed of accessing a webpage reduced from 3 minutes in 2G to 4 seconds, while the speed of downloading a photo from the internet came down to 4 seconds from 4 minutes.

Having realized the potential of 4G network for the growth of the mobile data market, then Safaricom chief executive Bob Collymore said at the time that the focus would be on enterprise business since it had more promise compared with other revenue streams.

“There is a big opportunity in the data market that, if well exploited, could grow into a big revenue stream,” Mr Collymore predicted in May 2013.

In the following months, Safaricom would embark on a Sh10 billion project to roll out a 2,500-kilometre terrestrial fibre-optic network across the country.

And the company’s ambition to stamp its authority on the internet service provision market was realized in December 2014 when it launched the first 4G internet in East Africa, capitalizing on burgeoning mobile internet use by tech-savvy youths in the country.

The government treated the company’s 4G internet infrastructure as one of the engines towards its growth of the digital economy, as businesses and populations got access to information faster and more conveniently, helping make more informed decisions.

Accessing a typical web page or downloading a photo became almost instant, with a speed of 0.5 seconds up from the previous 4 seconds on 3G.

“I believe it is such speeds that gave the earliest signal that Kenya would be among the first countries in Africa to embrace the Fourth Industrial Revolution. With such infrastructure in place, emerging technologies such as cloud computing and Internet of Things became a reality,” says Timothy Oriedo, an early adopter of the services and founder of Predictive Analytics Lab, a local data science training firm.

When former US president Barack Obama visited Kenya in July 2015, he publicly admitted that the internet speed in Nairobi was far much faster than in Washington, highlighting Safaricom’s efforts in putting Kenya on the global map.

‘Silicon Savannah’ is only second to Madagascar (24.9 Mbps) in terms of internet speed at 10.1 Mbps, which is higher than Rwanda, Uganda, Ghana and Namibia combined, according to the 2019 World Bank Digital Report for Kenya. This has seen new job titles birthed.

“We’ve witnessed so many changes in this decade. The cost of internet has been coming down each year, the speed has been more stable and this has inspired the rise of online jobs, helping businesses cut costs and maximize profits,” says Prof Bitange Ndemo of the University of Nairobi’s Business School.

The 4G network speeds also birthed the e-commerce sector in Kenya and has led to the access of goods from the comfort of people’s homes, cutting off transport costs, boosting trust and saving time for other chores.

“E-commerce has changed the brains of start-up owners. They must now incorporate online payments and goods delivery in their business plans. Most business people now have abandoned paying for stalls. They sell their items online,” Dr Lillian Wanzare, a computer science researcher at Maseno University observes.

Back in 2010, internet penetration was 9.7 percent with 3.2 million users, but Safaricom has played the biggest role in growing it to 89.7 percent – the highest in Africa – as 46.8 million Kenyans enjoy the power of the internet as at June 2019, according to the Communications Authority of Kenya.

After launching 4G Plus internet speeds in 2017, and with the possibility of launching 5G in 2021 drawing closer, the company’s biggest headache has shifted to how best to protect the privacy of user data and how to boost inclusion in terms of mobile data affordability as its services remain an integral part of every Kenyan’s life.

“New technologies like 5G will broaden the capabilities offered by the digital revolution, but it also means we have to keep developing innovative solutions so that the arrival of these new capabilities does not widen the digital divide,” said current CEO Peter Ndegwa during the GSMA Thrive Africa event last September.

He added that to avoid leaving out some consumers the new world of Augmented Reality, Cloud and IoT measures must be taken to ensure existing inequalities are not widened.


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