On the occasion of America’s great festival of consumption and the official start of the riot of gift buying it seems appropriate to pause for a moment to consider Sharing.

I’m not talking about the last piece of pecan pie or the game controller. I refer to network sharing, which is on my mind because of a couple of recent stories:

  • A Bloomberg report last week mooting interest on Ericsson’s part in owning networks and providing capacity to multiple operators, with Africa mentioned as a possible target area.
  • A report in the Business Daily (Nairobi) indicating that Kenya was planning not to issue LTE licenses to private operators but instead create a public-private partnership to own and operate the network, leasing capacity to all service providers.

Africa has had some experience with infrastructure sharing already, and the pace may be picking up: American Towers just purchased 3,200 towers from Cell C, intending to lease back tower capacity to Cell C and provide smaller operators access to a national footprint. But what Ericsson and the Kenyan government are talking about goes a step beyond that, into a business model where every operator is a MVNO. Worried about becoming a dumb pipe? – forget it. We’ll be the pipe.

This model has attractions for the developing world. For one thing, it gets around the difficulty that many operators have in disengaging from the expensive arms race of network coverage. And it would probably speed rural development.

But it doesn’t change the fact that it will cost a lot of money to provide Africa with mobile infrastructure, and it doesn’t create that money. Both the Ericsson and Kenya proposals – sketchy as they are at this point – include unnamed partners who are presumably putting up some or all of the capital: Valter D’Avino, Ericcson’s VP of managed services, characterized the endeavor as “Ericsson plus a financial company,” and the private half of Kenya’s “public-private partnership” is likely to be asked to put up some cash.

So the question then is – and I apologize for the lack of holiday spirit – “What’s in it for me if I’m the money guy?” Governments may be able to justify infrastructure investment on the basis of business development; Ericsson obviously would see ongoing revenue from network management and equipment sales. Making the case for private investment in African mobile infrastructure may be a bit more challenging.