An emergent Africa

01 September 2017 | James Pearce

Africa is the world’s second largest continent, home to more than 1.2 billion people, but until recently, it was considered a slow mover for telecoms.

Now, it is the world’s fastest growing mobile market, yet just 350 million of the continent’s residents had access to  internet services in 2016 (InternetWorldStats).

Mobile has been a key driver for development in Africa, with telecoms in sub-Saharan Africa transitioning from one dominated by mobile voice to one driven primarily by the growth of data services, according to a study by Analysys Mason. Data revenue will increase from $6.4 billion in 2015 to $13.7 billion in 2021, at a CAGR of 13.4%

"This growth will be driven primarily by rising demand for internet services, the greater availability of low-priced smartphones and expanding 3G and 4G coverage," said senior analyst Karim Yaici, who wrote the report. "To realise this growth potential, operators need to address the high cost of data infrastructure deployment in order to support capacity and coverage expansion, as well as introducing affordable and innovative data pricing."

That is the key challenge facing the continent – the high cost of deploying infrastructure in countries that often have limited access to electricity, and are made up of terrain not always suitable to huge fibre rollouts.

An Intelsat project with Vodacom illustrates the challenge of connecting rural African communities. Vodacom, based in South Africa, was licensed to provide service in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a nation of 81 million in the heart of the continent. The many widespread rural villages in rugged mountain terrain made a terrestrial network cost prohibitive. A lack of paved roads and power grids made access difficult for building and maintaining large base stations that could provide rural coverage. Vodacom decided that the best means of rapid deployment of a network was building small, solar-powered terminals connected by satellite.

There has also been a noticeable growth in the subsea cable industry, with Djibouti, for example, becoming a key hub for routes passing from Europe to Asia, while a number of new cables running from South America to Africa are in development.

The South Atlantic Cable System (SACS) is one example of a cable in the works. Currently in the first-phase stage of development, the Angola Cables-led SACS is set to be completed in 2018. It will run from Fortaleza, Brazil, to the municipality of Quissama on the Angolan coast, offering 40Tbps of capacity.

"For Angolans, the time to access content available in America – the largest centre for the production and aggregation of digital content and services – will improve fivefold." said António Nunes, CEO of Angola Cables.

Other projects in development include the recently announced Guinea-Bissau project, which will link the country to ACE, and has been backed by Orange, MTN and, perhaps most importantly, the World Bank (see page 11).

The impact of subsea cables on the region should not be underestimated. Six years after the launch of the Sea Cable System (SEACOM), the first undersea broadband cable along Africa’s eastern and southern coastlines, the Internet Society’s 2015 report on internet development and governance in Africa credited submarine as having played a key role in accelerating Africa’s access to international bandwidth by 20-fold in just five years.

The report also noted that while submarine cables have had a dramatic impact on access to bandwidth, more needs to be done in building cross-border connectivity and terrestrial infrastructure for landlocked countries far from the coastline.

Safaricom is one of the companies that has invested in both subsea and terrestrial cables in the region, owning a 32.5% stake in The East African Marine System (TEAMS) initiative, which spearheads connectivity in Kenya.

Safaricom’s head of wholesale Wangeci Kanjama said it was greater demand for content, along with continuing use of traditional services such as voice and SMS that has been driving connectivity investments in Africa.

"We continue to see high amounts of SMS usage because there is still a relatively low smartphone penetration," she explains. "But we’re also striking more and more partnerships with content providers as demand for video on the continent grows."

"Some of the challenges in Africa remain the same, though. The lack of electricity means powering infrastructure can be challenging, so new and innovative solutions, such as solar-powered terminals, are becoming more important," she added. 

Topics: Capacity media, wholesale telecoms, African telecoms, African wholesale carrier