African Internet makes progress, but still a long road ahead

Broadband connectivity will be one of the major spurs to the growth of African economies over the next decade, but there is still plenty of work to be done in building the telecommunications backbone that will connect the continent to the global village.

April 3, 2012

Broadband connectivity will be one of the major spurs to the growth of African economies over the next decade, but there is still plenty of work to be done in building the telecommunications backbone that will connect the continent to the global village.

This is according to Aidan Baigrie, Head of Business Development at SEACOM, who was speaking at the Sixth Annual Africa Economic Forum. He says that broadband is to the 21st century what railways were to the last century – the engine of social and economic progress that forges economic links between countries and supercharges trade and transactions.

One World Bank study found a 1.3% increase in GDP for every 10% increase in broadband connectivity – an illustration of just how important connectivity is in Africa’s growth path. Though the relationship between GDP and broadband may not be one of simple direct causality, there is no doubt that access to information, communication and education helps countries to grow their economies at a rapid rate.

Baigrie says that new international cables such as SEACOM have helped to boost the performance of the Internet in many African countries while reducing costs for the end-user. In service since July 2009, SEACOM alone has seen more than 10-fold increases in bandwidth penetration in several of Africa’s most underserved nations, along with big drops in connectivity prices. Many African operators are also investing in national backhaul links and the last mile.

Yet there is still a long way to go. Africa has less than 0.4 Tbps of international connectivity going into Europe, compared to nearly 5.0 Tbps of capacity between Europe and the US. Demand for connectivity in Africa is still spiking, meaning that there will need to be plenty of investment to keep up. Etforecasts predicts almost another 150 million more internet users in Africa within three years from now. (Source: http://www.etforecasts.com/products/ES_intusersv2.htm)

Demand is being spurred by the availability of mobile broadband and cheaper smartphones, Baigrie says. Users want Internet access via smartphones for entertainment, shopping, social networking and commercial applications, leading to an explosion in mobile data on African telecom networks.

Cisco, for example, predicts that mobile devices will surpass the population by the end of the year and that African mobile data traffic will explode at a compounded annual rate of 104% between 2011-2016. By 2013, MTN expects to have more smartphones than regular phones in South Africa.

SEACOM is growing its capacity to keep up with demand. On one of SEACOM’s terrestrial backhaul links, Infinera and SEACOM ran a world first field trial for a 500 Gbps photonic integrated circuit (PIC), proving that although the demand for land-based fibre transmission speeds of 100s of Gigabits per second may still be in the future with projects such as the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the technology capable of achieving this is already available.

However, African regulators and operators also need to be focusing as much on access networks as they are on submarine cables and backhaul connectivity to drive growth, Baigrie says. African regulators need to make frequency spectrum available in a structured manner, and need to create partnership models that support operators in building and deploying infrastructure rapidly and in an open access manner that helps build an African Internet.