Exclusive: Airtel bets big on Wi-Fi across Africa as it looks for 3G substitutes

Mobile operator Airtel Africa is rolling out a large-scale Wi-Fi network in 17 countries in an effort to bring high-speed mobile data services to a region of the world that still relies heavily on 2G networks, GigaOM has learned.

Airtel Africa, part of the India-based Bharti Airtel group, will deploy tens of thousands of carrier-grade access points in high-traffic areas throughout its pan-continental network, according to a source close to the deal who asked not to be named because details have not been officially released. Airtel has started building the network in Niger, but it plans to quickly expand it to the 16 other African countries in its footprint. Depending on how successful the rollout is and how much the network is used, Airtel could expand the project to encompass more than 100,000 nodes, our source said.

A Ruckus Wireless Wi-Fi hotspot/small cell
A Ruckus Wireless Wi-Fi hotspot/small cell

Ruckus Wireless(s rkus) will supply its indoor and outdoor high-capacity access points, while Alcatel-Lucent(s alu) will supply its service and aggregation router and act as the system integrator on the project. We reached out to Airtel, Ruckus and Alcatel-Lucent. Alcatel-Lucent confirmed it is building a backbone data transport and backhaul network for Airtel, but a spokesman said the company would not comment on any Wi-Fi plans. Ruckus told us they had no comment, and we have not heard back from Airtel.

While Wi-Fi is being used in countries like the U.S. to supplement high-speed 3G and LTE networks, in Africa 3G connections are few and far between and 4G services are virtually nonexistent. According to Ericsson’s(s eric) most recent Market Report, 85 percent of the subscribers in the Africa and Middle East regions are on 2G networks. Africa’s penetration of smartphones is low compared to more developed regions, but it’s expected to grow quickly as more vendors produce cheaper and cheaper Wi-Fi-equipped Android smartphones.

Our source tells us that Airtel is using Wi-Fi as a 3G/4G replacement, putting up dense clusters of access points in hotels, airports, shopping districts and heavily trafficked outdoor locations. It’s much more inexpensive to use Wi-Fi as a mobile data technology. Even though it can’t provide the coverage of a wide-area cellular network, Airtel can use it surgically, delivering capacity to areas where it will be used the most.

The deal is a big one for Ruckus, which recently went public, even though the rollout doesn’t yet approach the scope of its massive Wi-Fi contract with Japan’s KDDI. For Alcatel-Lucent, the deal is an opportunity to help build an alternate wireless network for one of Africa’s largest carriers using its core infrastructure. Alcatel-Lucent has its own Wi-Fi product, but it’s meant to be deployed in conjunction with its own lightRadio 3G and 4G infrastructure. Airtel uses Nokia Siemens Networks(s nok)(s si) and Huawei for its cellular systems, but the deal could give Alcatel-Lucent a leg up when the next round of network construction begins.

Apart from Niger here are the other countries Airtel will launch Wi-Fi in: Burkina Faso, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Nigeria, the Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, the Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.

Featured image courtesy of Shutterstock user Anton Balazh