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Stay-at-home internet surge overwhelms telcos

THE STANDARD INSIDER
By Frankline Sunday | April 7th 2020

As many Kenyans are holed up in their homes to prevent the spread of coronavirus, telcos have witnessed a surge in demand for the Internet.

Now, the government plans to compel the firms to invest more funds in expanding network capacity to accommodate the rising demand for connectivity as the country fights the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Through the Communications Authority of Kenya, service providers, including Safaricom, Airtel and Telkom, have been asked to lower charges on some of their services, as the government seeks to cushion low-income earners from the economic downturn as a result of the pandemic.

Last month, the telcos scrapped transaction costs for the transfer of amounts less than Sh1,000 and doubled the daily limit, with banks undertaking similar moves on their mobile platforms.

However, the regulator said while this is a commendable first step, it is not enough given the magnitude of the unfolding situation. “With the continued extension of the Covid-19 conditions, it might call for a rethink of what other concessions can be made,” said CA Acting Director General Mercy Wanjau during an interview with the State broadcaster.

“This is to bring in more people into that fold and have more of them feel the impact of the concessions being granted.”

According to Ms Wanjau, capacity constraints have also been experienced on the country’s broadband infrastructure, where service providers have been overwhelmed by an unprecedented rise in demand.

“We have been in an extensive conversation about the need to increase capacity because the users are spiking exponentially, and this means extra investments within the same space where we are asking them to lower their prices or even offer them for free,” she said.

Telecommunication Service Providers of Kenya (Tespok) said there has been a massive spike in data traffic, particularly video-based data as businesses, schools and colleges rely more on video conferencing to communicate.

Fiona Asonga, CEO of Tespok, said regular traffic at the Kenya Internet Exchange Point (KIXP) has spiked, averaging 22.6Gps at the end of March from 7.5Gps in January underlying the need for policy intervention.

"All the taxes on communication and devices like the excise duty on airtime, data and mobile money transfer should be zero-rated in this difficult time when connectivity is essential,” she urged.

Already, ISPs in the country are grappling with rising demand for broadband connectivity with data from the KNBS indicating a 24 per cent increase year-on-year in total utilised bandwidth over the past five years.

Wired broadband subscriptions in the country, for example, jumped from 205,000 to 311,000 between 2017 and 2018 as more households and businesses across the country acquired subscriptions with the number of ISPs rising by 17 per cent.

However, the spike in demand has overwhelmed service providers, with many people from many parts of the country lamenting poor speeds and intermittent video feeds.

“I have been teaching a live online class in the past week using Zoom and some of my students, who are in different parts of the country, have had issues keeping up because of poor internet connections and regular disconnections,” said Kelvin Kariuki, a lecturer at the Multimedia University of Kenya.

Complaints about poor connectivity have also been faced on mobile data networks of all the service providers, especially during the evening hours.

Peter Ndegwa, CEO Safaricom, said they have witnessed high-interest traffic. “We have seen our internet traffic grow by about a third due to increased usage from our customers at home, especially Home Fibre customers who are using the service for longer periods and using it for more services than they usually do,” said Ndegwa, who assumed the role of CEO on April 1.

He said the company has since doubled speeds for all fibre customers. “We have also increased what we refer to as caches for several popular social media sites to match the demand that we are seeing,” Ndegwa said, adding: “Essentially, we have made a number of heavy investments in our network that would normally take months within a very short period of two weeks.”

“So, some customers may have experienced intermittent connectivity during one of these upgrades. The situation is now stabilising and we are confident that customers on our network can now experience unmatched quality.”

According to the company’s latest earnings report, it spent Sh37 billion capital on the core network, operations, transmission and IT and is looking to spend a similar amount in the current financial year.

Zuku wifi service has similarly struggled to maintain uptime for subscribers on its network. Despite Zuku claiming that it has introduced an offer doubling subscribers’ capacity, the firm’s social media accounts are inundated by frustrated complaints from consumers.

In several cases, some customers even posted screenshots of broadband tests that showed they were receiving less than 2Mbps instead of 5Mbps.

“We always strive to give our clients the best experience,” stated Zuku in a response to one of the queries about intermittent connectivity. “Stability is also dependent on the number of users if bandwidth is overstretched beyond the limit.”

For other service providers, however, calls to raise their capital expenditure might be a tall order given their existing challenges.

Airtel Kenya and Telkom Kenya are currently fighting to save merger talks between the two firms expected to give them a surviving chance in the competitive telco market.

Earlier this year, infrastructure firm Eaton Towers shut down Telkom Kenya for a week in some parts of the country for failure to pay hundreds of millions of shillings in leasing fees.

The shutdown affected 70 of Telkom’s base stations with the firm’s subscribers in the affected regions unable to call, text, send money or browse the Internet for the entire week forcing CA to intervene.

At the same time, the poor fibre network infrastructure in rural areas has prompted concerns of a widening digital divide as some areas enjoy better connectivity than others. According to the Kenya 2019 census, just 22 per cent of the country’s population uses the Internet and only 10 per cent have a laptop, desktop or tablet computer.

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