Photos: AFP/Getty Images

Unlocking Africa’s broadband potential

By By Lanre Akinola | Published:  28 December, 2009

The arrival of fibre-optic cables on Africa’s shores provides an opportunity for operators to open up broadband markets across the continent, although these undersea cables are only one part of the access puzzle

While significant strides have been made towards bridging the historical digital divide between Africa and other regions in recent years, the continent – and sub-Saharan Africa in particular – continues to trail far behind in the critical area of internet and broadband penetration.

According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development’s Information and Economy Report 2009, “other developing regions often boast a broadband penetration 10 times higher than Africa”. This is true even when the North African region, as well as South Africa – which constitute 90 percent of all broadband users on the continent – are included.

A lack of access to international bandwidth, as well as underdeveloped fibre-optic networks, have left many countries in the region dependent on expensive satellite connections, resulting in extremely high prices for painfully slow connections. Of the 20 countries with the most expensive broadband globally, 14 are in sub-Saharan Africa, and monthly broadband fees in excess of $1000 are common.

On July 23rd 2009, the 15,000km Seacom fibre- optic submarine cable landed on the shores of East Africa. With it came access to high speed internet bandwidth in Asia and Europe for Tanzania, Kenya, Mozambique and Uganda. In September, Glo 1 – a 9,800km cable owned by Nigeria’s Globalcom – with a current capacity of 640 gigabytes per second, arrived in Ghana and Nigeria, connecting them with Western Europe. “The price of the internet will go down tenfold in certain cases to a couple of hundred dollars a megabit, or less… so we can start addressing not only the best of us, but the rest of us,” says Daniel Levy, general manager for Africa at Alvarion, a provider of wireless broadband infrastructure.

More cables are due to come online, and “as of the middle of next year, Africa will be able to connect to anywhere in the world,” says Yvon Le-Roux, vice president for emerging markets at Cisco. “There’s no excuse any more for the region to lag behind others,” he adds.

Gaining access to international bandwidth is only one step in ensuring that the broadband divide is successfully bridged. “The burden now is on us and governments to make sure that the speed that is on the East and West coast becomes pervasive inside the continent, going away from the landing stations,” Mr Le-Roux says.

Creating a climate conducive to investment in broadband infrastructure will be critical to ensure this. Remote and rural areas provide few economic incentives for operators to risk the capital expenditure to connect them to coastal urban centres. This is true of mobile telecommunications despite its broader success in Africa, and even more so in the case of broadband and internet usage.

“The business of government is not business, it is to enable. And that is the regulatory framework we have operated for many years,” says Bernard Forson, Director General of Ghana’s National Communications Authority. “It is my firm belief that the private sector will always make good decisions. If I can create what they want; if I can put across a good value proposition, the investments will follow.”

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