AfricaCom 2014: Data driving Africa towards global connectivity

DT Editor James Barton spoke to some of the industry's leading lights at AfricaCom 2014 to find out where the continent's telecommunications sector is heading.

When I asked one top executive at AfricaCom – who shall remain nameless – how he’d found the show this year, he explained to me that he felt it was somehow lacking – as though nothing much had changed since the previous year.

Operators are evolving their networks as expected, moving from 2G to 3G to 4G, and data is growing in much the same way as it has been for some time – but that was the case last year too.

While it will as ever be interesting to see what happens next year - and if this missing factor materialises for him – I certainly wasn’t underwhelmed by the show. Talking to some leading executives within the African telecommunications space, it was clear that the continent is still dynamic and engaging even when it’s ‘just’ business as usual.

Africa always manages to surprise, even with developments as utterly expected as 4G deployments. While some pointed out that consumer demand for 4G did not yet justify the operator investment, others noted that consumers were flocking to 4G as the pricing was phenomenally cheap compared to the initial advent of 3G in the continent. In some cases, wireless LTE architecture can allow users to consume up to 18GB of data on a 4G network compared for the same price as 1GB on a 3G network, massively driving up ARPU – and thereby helping with a complaint common in the region.

The demand for data is not just already there in Africa – it is driving the demand for networks and technology that can facilitate data consumption. While there is certainly a divide between more advanced markets such as South Africa and less developed markets such as Tanzania, 3G and 4G compatible device penetration is steadily rising and the corresponding data growth is evident. Mobile and tablet devices are now one of the most common methods of watching video content – particularly as several African countries are repurposing the spectrum previously used for analogue TV services. Customers are now selecting their networks based on data, rather than voice.

Of course, all this data consumption means that operators need to have a solid data centre/cloud strategy to deal with subscriber data management, and this was definitely a trend I picked up on at the show. As network functions are moved into the cloud or otherwise virtualised, the customer experience can be monitored more efficiently and dealt with more swiftly. This higher quality of service combats the customer churn endemic to Africa, and the greater network visibility allows for issues to be identified and addressed more easily, driving up the network quality.

While many at the show were keen to point out that network quality is the foremost differentiator in Africa, others noted that the increased operator accountability and improved customer experience management meant that expectations of service quality were becoming increasingly important. Placing a different layer on top of their networks to troubleshoot services will become ever more essential for operators as they continue to deploy LTE networks.

Mission-critical networks for banks and businesses will have to keep pace with this trend as well, and network function virtualisation will be just as crucial for these entities as it will be to telcos. Right now it may be difficult to monetise 4G virtualisation, but it’s definitely on the way. Going forward, the enterprise sector will increasingly need to virtualise data centre servers, and next year we’ll probably see a stronger push in this direction. Still, this year the foundations were laid.

All this, and there’s the issue of Africa’s growing international interconnectivity still to talk about. This year, the first ever submarine cable between Africa and Latin America was announced – it may be a way off, but it nonetheless highlights the Africa’s importance to the international subsea cable market, and the central position that the continent will take in global communications.

For me, this announcement alone was enough to give AfricaCom 2014 its standout moment – that lacking je ne sais quoi, if you will. But I’m sure you’ll agree that even business as usual in Africa is far from pedestrian.


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