With explosive growth in mobile broadband uptake since 2012, Tanzania’s rapidly expanding 3G and 4G networks are driving urban telecoms growth and benefitting from significant capital expenditure in recent times. However, 3G coverage remains limited to just 35% of the population, while 4G services do not extend beyond urban areas at present. The government and the private sector are working in tandem to reduce access gaps, with the goal of attaining nationwide communications and internet through private sector-supported rural coverage expansion.
Tanzania’s big three mobile operators – Vodacom, Airtel Tanzania and Tigo – have been actively expanding their mobile broadband networks over the last decade, with the country becoming a relatively early adopter of 3G services when Vodacom launched its 3G network in February 2007.
In the years since, 3G and 4G LTE expansion has accelerated, with Tigo expanding its 4G network to cover some 23 cities as of June 2017, and the state-owned Tanzania Telecommunications Company Limited (TTCL) announcing plans to extend 4G coverage to 100% of the country in 2018 following completion of the government-led National ICT Broadband Backbone (NICTBB) project, which established a 25,954-km fibre-optic cable network across 24 regions.
Fixed wired and fixed wireless internet subscriptions comprise just 9.3% of total internet services in Tanzania. Mobile broadband has been far more popular, with the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority reporting that the total number of mobile wireless users in the country more than doubled between 2011 and 2013 to 7.5m. The number of mobile wireless users rose by 50.7% in 2014 to 11.3m, by 44.2% in 2015 to 16.3m users and 10.4% in 2016 to 18m. However, in July 2016 the Global System for Mobile Communications Association (GSMA) reported that although 85% of the country is covered by 2G networks, 70% of its population lives in rural areas, with 3G coverage reaching just 35% of Tanzanians. Although internet penetration has risen from 12% in 2011, it still stood at just 40% in 2016.
Rural Infrastructure Upgrades
Telecoms operators have been active in launching major rural expansion projects in recent years, after the government approved four private companies – Vodacom, Tigo, TTCL and Airtel – for participation in a subsidised rural network expansion programme targeting 112 underserved districts in April 2015. These operators will receive an estimated $9.6m in subsidies for the work, financed by the Universal Communications Service Access Fund, further supporting the NICTBB’s development. On making the announcement the government reported that $7.6m would be used to improve network access in 102 districts, while an additional $1.5m was allocated to implementing communications services in 10 districts located near the country’s borders.
TTCL’s rural expansion plans got a major boost in March 2017 when the company announced it had reached a TSh600bn ($272.9m) financing agreement with the Chinese government to fund new network deployment in rural areas. The firm had earlier launched a restructuring programme, announcing plans to raise $330m of investment to finance upgrades including expansion of its 4G LTE network. Blanket 4G LTE coverage is targeted in its five-year development and restructuring plan, unveiled in December 2015, which involved the construction of 50 additional LTE sites in Dar es Salaam to improve data speeds and coverage, boosting the total number of LTE sites to 75.
Infrastructure sharing could also play a larger role in rural service. In June 2016 the GSMA unveiled a new infrastructure-sharing initiative in partnership with Airtel, Tigo and Vodacom, with the trio committing to launching six 3G pilot sites in underserved areas, providing access to 13m people. In March 2017 Tigo and Swedish equipment vendor Ericsson announced the launch of the first active GSMA sites under this initiative in the Lindi and Mtwara regions.