While Ghana fares relatively well in terms of basic telecoms indicators, private operators and public bodies are working to improve and expand coverage. However, the challenges involved in rolling out infrastructure for mobile networks are considerable, and range from difficulties in obtaining planning rights to high maintenance costs.
Facing these hurdles, the leading operators have switched from a capital-expenditure model to one based on operational expenditure by contracting with tower firms – such as Eaton Towers, ATC Ghana and Helios Towers – which own the assets, maintain the network and share the infrastructure burden.
As such, the operators can share towers and expand networks rapidly. “It is a very colocation-friendly market,” Gareth Townley, managing director of Eaton Towers Ghana, told OBG. “The operators buy into it and the regulator supports the idea.” The National Telecommunications Policy of 2005 and the Electronic Communications Act of 2008 both promote infrastructure sharing as a means of expanding coverage.
The tower-leasing model has advantages for mobile companies. Under current regulation, for example, contracts are billed in cedis, which helps operators mitigate currency risks. However, this becomes a challenge for tower operators, given that infrastructure investments are dollar-based and, as such, this risk has to be priced into contracts.
Tower companies are also affected by the erratic power supply in Ghana. Tower sites require generators, adding to the already high cost of electricity from the local grid. The maintenance of energy equipment accounts for as much as 75% of a tower company’s production and operating costs.
Thus it is largely operational rather than capital costs that define the difficulties of network rollout in Ghana. The cost of building a tower is similar with other African markets, according to Townley. Operational costs remain competitive with other markets in the region. For example, MTN Ghana has a lower total cost per subscriber, at $4.06, than its counterparts in Nigeria ($4.63) and South Africa ($7.97). The operator is also able to maintain a profit margin of above 60% for internet data services, higher than that of MTN Nigeria.
There are other barriers to network development, however. The cost and extent of infrastructure deployment is affected by planning regulations. Urban areas are becoming congested and gaining planning approval for new towers can be difficult. Tower firms require neighbourhood consent for deployment, and there is a general antipathy among the public towards mobile towers. In rural areas, land rights and access also impact tower deployment, creating a barrier to service quality.
There are plans in place to support network development in both urban and rural settings. Google has been working with partners under the brand CS quared to bring wholesale broadband to metropolitan areas in Ghana via last-mile connections made through the deployment of fibre. The initiative – Project Link – aims to bring more than 1000 km of fibre to Accra, Tema and Kumasi.
In addition, through the Ghana Investment Fund for Electronic Communications (GIFEC), the government has developed a rural telephony project. GIFEC deploys funds to contribute to the capital expenditure of private mobile operators extending 2G and 3G base stations into rural areas. According to the Alliance for Affordable Internet, this partnership ensures that around 70% of the costs of serving these rural communities are covered by the government. Therefore, while there are difficulties in maintaining rural coverage, the government and international players are working to cover the shortfall left by private operators, with Ghana committed to service even in commercially non-viable areas.