Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Build on Existing Distribution Networks

Nokia Siemens Networks announced a “Village Connections” pilot project in Eastern Cape, South Africa last week. The initiative, part of a broader goal of providing wireless access to 5 billion people by 2015, is an attempt to lower the capital and operating expenses that keep most operators away from remote, rural villages. Wireless subscribers to this service are also expected to benefit from lower fees.
Nokia Siemens Networks (NSN) claims the reduced costs are enabled by an innovative “distributed architecture.” These technology and business-model advances push call control and customer management out to rural access points, each of which serves approximately 80 subscribers and runs on a basic computer equipped with a simple software application and wireless card.

With this initiative, NSN moves toward a potentially lucrative opportunity – a franchised service model for phone and Internet connectivity. NSN claims its GSM Access Points are “plug-and-play” and backed up by solar or battery power. The challenge remains, however, in identifying, training, supporting and managing a large number of geographically-scattered rural franchisees.

NSN (or other multinationals) will maximize their chances of success by identifying and securing good distribution partners. While every rural village has a small shop or retailer, networking companies don’t have enough boots on the ground to train entrepreneurs or install and service even the most self-contained access points at each location. They may, however, be able to piggyback on distributors who regularly supply soft drinks, beer, soap or other goods to those retailers. Distributors would gain a new revenue stream and operational efficiencies (i.e., shopkeepers could place orders using the new phone network). Village retailers could benefit from offering a new product line to their customers, beginning with phone service and extending to handsets, additional airtime and phone accessories. These shopkeepers are also the most likely to know how to run a business and protect valuable equipment. Schools might also be potential partners. In many rural villages, the school is the first (or only) place with a PC, electricity, adequate security and sufficiently educated personnel. And, if bureaucratic snags can be avoided, it may be worthwhile to partner with a government entity. Such alliances might help technology companies solve the rural distribution riddle.

Also in the news:

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