Market Trend

Africa eyes terrestrial network improvement

The accepted wisdom concerning African terrestrial network development is that, barring a few hotspots, it fails to match the handsome international capacity endowed on the continent by various newly launched subsea projects.

In reality, while Africa is far from connected in a European or North American sense, most countries are working hard towards improved inland connectivity. In the last year, African terrestrial transmission networks grew 15% to reach, by the end of September 2011, an aggregate of 676,739km in length – according to analyst company Hamilton Research. If you imagine this laid end-to-end, it’s enough fibre to go around the earth almost 17 times. An average of 138km of new fibre has been entering African service per day over the last year. When interconnected, these terrestrial fibre networks will eventually create an unbroken route pretty much from Cape Town to Cairo. This increase in fibre reach is bringing high capacity fibre backbone networks to dozens of new towns and cities across Africa. So far so good – but what about next year, and the year after? The signs look good, according to Hamilton, with the forward inventory of network infrastructure deployments, either planned or proposed, increasing over last year’s levels. Yes, there are the digitally precocious and the digitally backward, as you might expect in any economically emergent region. South Africa punches well above its weight as a contributor to last year’s deployment figures, and work there is far from done. The existing fibre networks of state-owned Broadband Infraco and Dark Fibre Africa (DFA) are to be added to by new long-haul networks being built by FibreCo and a consortium of Neotel, MTN and Vodacom. The roll-out of metropolitan networks in many major towns and cities is ongoing. There’s no getting away from the fact that more Africans enjoy mobile connections than wired ones – many more. The number of broadband connections over cellular networks will exceed 250 million by the end of 2015, according to research firm Informa. This compares with a likely with 15 million fixed-line broadband connections by that time, of which 70% will be Digital Subscriber Line (DSL). A fifth of internet traffic in Africa will be carried by cellular networks by 2015, compared with a global equivalent of just 3%.

The outlook overall is good – whether wired or unwired. A mix of public and private investment, decisive and forward looking regulatory regimes, the introduction of competition, and imaginative technological and commercial innovation all point to faster and faster African broadband availability. That’s not to say that there is room for complacency among African service providers and carriers. Devices and services are still unaffordable for many. And Africa’s sheer size and diversity mean that even if current rates of development keep up, it could be decades yet before network coverage reaches some of the more out of the way rural areas.

Developments in 2012

  • Kenyan operator Safaricom is to develop its own independent fibre network for the country, hoping to gain a larger share of its data services market.

  • In neighbouring Tanzania, the National Information & Communication Technology Broadband Backbone (NICTBB) is to be built next year with a loan from the Chinese government.

  • In South Africa, Telkom has the largest fibre network covering approximately 143,000km but is well on the way to being rivalled by Broadband Infraco and its national long distance fibre-optic network. Next year will see it expanded to enable connectivity to smaller cities and rural areas.

  • The government of Mali has announced a 942km fibre-optic cable project to link from the Algerian border to the border of Niger. The project is funded by a loan from the Export-Import Bank of China.