By a fortunate series of co-incidences, the outlook for communications in Africa is currently looking better than it has for a long time. There are positive developments in both network infrastructure and services which address challenges which go back years.
Over the next two to three years, no fewer than eight new fiber optic undersea cable projects* are set to come to fruition in Africa. We are covering some of the schemes on Developing Telecoms now: East Africa - a major telecoms hub for the future? / Togo Telecom chooses ECI for fibre-optic turnkey network / Corning LEAF Fibre Passes 30 Million Kilometres Sold to Worldwide Customers.
What impact will these new schemes have on communications in Africa? We are witnessing nothing less than the creation of Africa's first modern country-to-country core network capability. Country-to-country network traffic will not be routed over satellite links which take it via North American, Asian or European hubs, long a source of African resentment.
Instead it will travel over a continent wide fibre optic backbone, staying within Africa. This will lead to greater competition, lower costs and improved quality of service (QoS).
The cost of fibre will drop massively as present capacity limitations are swept aside. Fiber will deliver greater bandwidth capacity which will also deliver greater coverage in urban and rural areas.
Competition among Communication Service Providers (CSPs) in Africa is increasing. The evolution of pan-regional super SPs like Zain, Orascom, MTN, Orange, Bharti and others is a challenge to more established CSPs. But from the user perspective increased competition leads to better services and lower prices.
Increased bandwidth capacity will enable CSPs to accelerate the move to 3G and 3.5G level services. Already Africa is leap-frogging GSM and HSPA in many areas. Mobile broadband will for many in Africa be the first on-line access service and the mobile internet will become the norm. This has huge implications for the growth of services such as IPTV in Africa.
Applications and Services
Despite much hype to the contrary, Africa is still mainly a plain vanilla voice and SMS continent. This could now be about to change. Mobile money is the killer service which promises to deliver something which is both compelling for consumers and revenue positive for CSPs.
The fact that this will bring affordable banking services to many millions of people for whom it has until now been in accessible, with all the business and social benefits that follow from this indicates that the service will not be short lived. Once established it will become the preferred method for banking transactions and could rapidly lead to the development of further financial services too.
We are covering developments in our Mobile Money Feature now.
What are the challenges in Africa now?
Backhaul capacity is a bottle-neck. Fibre is the solution in many cases. There is also a real need to increase fixed wire capacity for broadband in metropolitan areas where CSPs are struggling to meet demand from businesses and the growing middle classes.
But the other big challenge is power. This needs dramatic improvement. It will happen in a number of ways. Communications equipment vendors need to cut power needs and improve efficiency of their systems.
Alternative power sources need to be deployed more widely, particularly for off-grid locations. Diesel fuel is one of the main OPEX costs for CSPs in Africa and pilferage is one of the biggest challenges.
We are reporting some innovative new systems on Developing Telecoms in our series of Ericsson case studies.
And we recently came across a small independent British company called Mastminder who design and install power and fuel management solutions for off grid and unreliable grid base transceiver stations. Their promise is to reduce OPEX costs by 35%, limit fuel theft and false delivery and increase network uptime, with a pay back period of only 6 months. Take a look: http://www.mastminder.com/.
Current / planned African submarine cable projects:
EASSy - http://www.eassy.org/
Seacom - http://www.seacom.mu/
SAT3/WASC/SAFE - http://www.safe-sat3.co.za/
MaIN OnE - http://www.mainonecable.com/
Uhurunet - http://www.uhurunet.com/
Infraco - http://www.infracolimited.com/
GLO1 - http://www.gloworld.com/
ACE - http://www.orange.com/
LION - http://www.orange.com/