Since 2009, the African telecommunications industry has come a long way in connecting people and businesses to reliable, affordable and fast Internet services. The new submarine cables that started to land off the continent’s east and west coasts from about eight years ago brought with them more affordable and plentiful international bandwidth. They now circle the continent, offering a reliable and resilient ring of connectivity at faster and faster speeds.
Meanwhile, telecoms players have also invested in connecting metropolitan areas in most major economies with fibre as well as in building national and regional fibre backbones to connect towns and cities to the Internet. We’re also seeing the industry make investments in more fibre to the home and business as well as LTE/4G in many of the larger cities. This offers telecoms users seamless and fast connectivity, as well as a more consistent quality of service.
The effect on many African economies and people has been transformative. In many countries, connectivity costs have fallen by a factor of 10 and the quality of the Internet experience has dramatically improved for people across the continent. The result is that organisations and consumers have been able to put the Internet to work in powerful ways that helps drive growth while reducing costs.
Against that backdrop, there are two major focuses for telecoms players for the next few years: improving links to predominantly landlocked countries that don’t yet have access to affordable international bandwidth, and facilitating the hosting and creation of content at open and neutral data centres within African countries.
When it comes to the first point, we’ll see innovative partnerships between governments, the private sector and multilateral financing institutions to help the smaller and landlocked countries that risk falling behind the rest of the continent. According to the World Bank, there are many countries in sub-Saharan Africa with less than 2.5 Internet users per 100 people.
By contrast, Kenya has 43 Internet users per 100 people and South Africa has 49 per 100. Thus, the digital divide is no longer just between Africa and the wealthier economies elsewhere in the world, but also between the leading and lagging countries in terms of their access to quality connectivity.
Building terrestrial fibre networks to connect towns and cities with each other, as well as to neighbouring countries and undersea cables, is challenging because of the sheer cost and long payback period involved. The road forward is for governments to work with neighbouring countries, the telecoms industry and multilateral financing institutions to pool resources and drive efficiency in how those resources get deployed.
Private telecoms operators, like Seacom, have been driving expansion from the cable stations of key high-speed international subsea cables to more landlocked countries and to the borders of landlocked countries, where regulations often block new private operators from entry. The pace of this is accelerating as more governments recognise that liberalisation, clear regulations and competition drive Internet growth and the benefits associated with access to quality high-speed Internet.
As for hosting more content in Africa, the growing choice of reliable, carrier-neutral data centres, open peering exchanges, content data networks and cloud ICT infrastructure are quickly changing market dynamics. More and more multinational operators and Internet companies are now providing their content from within Africa’s borders.
User-generated content and collaboration, especially video, are growing as people flock to Facebook, YouTube, Skype and so on, to share and communicate. As the end-user experience on the Web improves, local content proliferates and people become content creators and drivers rather than mere consumers.
We’re also seeing a heavy emphasis on the enterprise market from hosting and cloud companies in Africa, all looking to host locally so as to improve the user experience of cloud-based applications for business users. African enterprises tend to want cloud services hosted in their own countries because laws and regulations in many countries demand that sensitive corporate data be stored within the nation’s borders rather than offshore, and because they want the best possible performance and lowest latency.
We’ve been talking about the cloud, video-on-demand and many other concepts for years, but Africa didn’t have the infrastructure to support these services. Now it’s finally coming to fruition because market deregulation, growing competition and end-user demand in most parts of Africa have forced content, application and infrastructure providers to speed up the deployment of new offerings.
We can expect significant social and economic benefits to follow in the wake of closer digital integration across Africa. Businesses will be able to become more efficient and more integrated with the rest of the world, thanks to the cloud. Governments will be able to deliver richer electronic services — for example, health and education — to their citizens. And for consumers, social media, video streaming and other rich media services will quickly become a part of everyday life.
- Byron Clatterbuck is CEO of Seacom