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How telecom's mast walked Baragoi into a new lease of life

By Paul Wafula | Published Thu, July 12th 2018 at 00:00, Updated July 12th 2018 at 12:06 GMT +3
After a wave of attacks abetted by a poor network coverage hindering sending distress calls, residents of Baragoi petitioned Safaricom to sort their network mess. [Courtesy]

Residents of Baragoi still shudder when they recall the deadly Suguta Valley attack in November 2012.

Mr John Wahome, says it is hard to forget the day the nation woke up to the Suguta horror, where 42 police officers were massacred. 

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Early that morning, locals woke up to find empty cow sheds, broken homesteads and a trail of destruction. Not even goats and camels were left behind.

As police pursued the bandits through the bushes and into the valley now known as the Valley of death, where they would later be ambushed, locals came to appreciate just how important a strong mobile network was to their community.

Police carry the body of their colleague who was killed during the operation in 2014. [File, Standard]

Wahome, who together with other activists petitioned Safaricom to do something about the network coverage in the vast arid and semi-arid area following the raid, says a stronger network has returned a smile on their faces.  

“Now the communication has greatly improved. It is nothing like that time. We also feel much safer given that we can now easily communicate with the police,” Mr Wahome said.  Poor connection also slowed down military emergencies.

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Before the network upgrade, residents had difficulties raising alarm in case of an attack. Early warning messages also came a little too late. Humanitarian organisations also had a hard time coordinating relief operations.

Government officials and other officers from non-governmental agencies had to travel over 106 kilometres to Maralal just to send emails.

Locals had identified trees and hills to run to when in need of network. But most of these sites became no-go zone areas in case of conflicts.

But this is now a thing of the past. With 3G connections, residents enjoy the quality of connections as experienced elsewhere in the country.

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“I was in parts of Kapedo, Baragoi and Mandera last year and it was unbelievable that I could post pictures and read news online from some of those far-flung places,” Grace Bomu, a technology researcher said.

Besides easing communications, a stronger network is now complementing the work of security agencies to end the trail of violence that comes with cattle raids and retaliatory attacks.

It is not just Baragoi that has experienced such a transformation from a mast, which the cities and highly populated areas take for granted. Residents of Mageta Island in the remote island west of Usenge beach also know this joy of a connection to an area where even government services are scarce.

Mageta, which is known as Chula in the local dialect, rely on the Usenge Water Bus as their primary mode of transport around their island.

Before the mast was built, they relied on the MTN network to make calls outside the island which was costly. But their lives also transformed after a mast that now stands tall amidst numerous rocks was completed.

The vast pastoral area is among the marginalised areas that need state intervention through the Universal Service Fund (USF).

The Universal Service Fund was set up for areas such as Mageta and Baragoi, to incentivise mobile operators to put base stations even in areas that do not make financial sense due to low population.

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To date, Safaricom has contributed almost half of the approximately Sh4 billion in the Fund.

The Communications Authority (CA) adopted a methodology that targets the application of the Fund to marginalised and underserved areas by offering incentives (a subsidy from the USF) to operators.

In identifying these areas, the CA conducted an Access Gap study, which identified different geographic areas of the country that require intervention under the USF fund

Safaricom and Telkom Kenya have been the most aggressive in placing bids to set up such base stations. Latest data shows that Safaricom has so far accessed Sh880 million compared to Telkom Kenya’s Sh350milion.

Expansion of network is still the most capital intensive exercise for mobile operators, taking in billions of shillings a year.

This year alone Safaricom, which has the widest coverage, plans to spend over Sh32 billion on improving our infrastructure in the country. In the Rift Valley the operator has prioritized about 200 new sites to set up base stations to improve network coverage.

The base stations have also been supporting the government by providing communication in far-flung areas to boost security efforts.

The firm has 10 sites in the Rift in such areas as Chemolingot, Churo, Olposmuru, Ngabara and is working on nine other sites this year in Turkana, Baringo and Laikipia counties.

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