For many years, residents of Narusura in Narok County have had a challenge when it comes to making phone calls. This is because Narusura, situated about 100 kilometres from Narok Town, has for long had no mobile network coverage, as there were no telecom masts nearby.
Locals here, like Jackline Twarare, have had to walk for about 10 kilometres to get to a hill before they can access a mobile signal.
But this changed towards the end of last year.
Through the Universal Service Access Fund (or simply USAF), set up by industry regulator Communications Authority of Kenya (CA) to finance the expansion of communications services to underserved areas, Safaricom applied for and was given the permission to put up a telecom mast (or Base Transceiver Station – BTS) at Enkutoto Primary School, an institution within Narusura.
(TOP: A resident of Oloodo, Narok County, makes a call next to a mast constructed by Safaricom with funds from USAF).
The mast, which was constructed from March to July 2018, has been operational from late last year and has really transformed the communications landscape for residents within the area.
“Previously before the new mast was put up, we used to walk for almost 10kms to get to a hill to connect to a mobile phone signal”, said Jackline Twarare, who has two children at Enkutoto Primary School.
“Enkutoto Primary School has also been equipped with solar power by World Vision and we now charge our phones from the school at Kshs 20 per session.”
Having the mast at the school has brought with it further convenience as Narusura residents can now also access other services like MPESA more easily.
Enock Nagira, another Narusura resident notes previously when they had incidences of livestock theft and needed to contact the government security team, it was a huge challenge.
“We had to first walk long distances to get two areas with mobile coverage before we can report an incident or call the security team. There are times we could be forced to search for the signal the whole day without success,” noted Nagira, while acknowledging the benefits of having the mast at the school.
Catherine Ngahu is the Chairperson of Universal Service Advisory Council (USAC), meaning that she chairs the team which looks at how the USAF is utilized and which projects are implemented.
Ngahu emphasized the benefits of the mast to the local community stating: “The people here used to travel long distances to access telephone services. In some cases, others even had to send colleagues to go and read their messages and withdraw cash sent to their mobile money accounts on their behalf. That is now left in the past and goes to show that having this kind of infrastructure within an area touches the lives of real people for which it was meant, that is the previously unserved and underserved population.”
To enable the USAF undertake its projects, telco operators contribute 0.1 per cent of their revenues to the kitty. The mobile network operators (MNOs) then bid to construct the masts and other infrastructure to underserved areas. For 2017/18 financial year, Safaricom and Telkom presented bids for a total of 78 sub-locations, with Safaricom taking 50 while Telkom is to put up the remaining 28 communication masts in selected sub-locations within the country. To put up the masts, the two telcos will use a total Kshs 1.25 billion, part of which has been settled by funds from the USAF.
“In phase one of this project, which we’re calling Voice Infrastructure, we have covered around 78 sub-locations all over the country. We are looking at the areas that are unserved – in Turkana, North Eastern and so on. We have areas that have already been allocated while others are in the process of being allocated, but overall, we are targeting 78 sub-locations in this phase of the project. In Phase Two of the project, we plan to cover the areas that have been identified as unserved from the Access Gaps study,” stated Ngahu.
Joseph Kihurani, a Network Engineer at Safaricom, said that the firm got a list of sub locations with poor network coverage then decided on which unserved areas to put up the masts on.
“This mast can serve up to 5,000 people after which it will be upgraded. The contract stipulates that after 12 months, other network operators can then be allowed to come on board and also set up their masts and infrastructure on the facility at a fee then share the maintenance costs with us,” said Kihurani during a recent inspection tour of the two masts in Narok County – one at Narusura and the other at Oloodo, about 132 kilometres from Nairobi – by the Safaricom and USAF teams.