• Connecting the dots

    Broadband companies are rushing to lay fibre and roll out 4G networks to provide stable, high-speed connectivity to the huge African market.

    Connecting the dots

    As everything from government services to retail shopping begins to move to the online space, consumers across Africa are demanding world-class connectivity to support their online activities.

    Africa’s largest independent cross-border fibre network operator Liquid Telecom continues its epic fibre roll-out across the continent, at a rate of 100 km per week. The network covers over 20 000 km, spanning 18 countries and stretching from the north of Uganda to Cape Town.

    The pace of the operator’s fibre roll-out is not slowing, with its promise to connect two more countries on the continent before the year is out.

    The company also recently announced an infrastructure-sharing deal with the pan-African MTN Group, under which the partners can access each other’s fixed and wireless networks in countries where one party does not have a presence.

    As a result, Liquid has gained a footprint – on top of its existing 18 markets – in 12 new countries: Benin, Cameroon, Republic of the Congo, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, Nigeria, Sudan, South Sudan and Swaziland.

    Taking the fibre network in conjunction with partnerships and satellite services, Liquid Telecom group CEO Nic Rudnick says: ‘There is no place … across the entire continent that we cannot reach.’

    Liquid is also providing some of Africa’s first fibre to the home (FTTH) offerings, and will see 100 000 households in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Kenya and Rwanda able to access FTTH services.

    Despite the hype characterising Africa as a mobile-loving continent, Rudnick says fibre will be key to providing Africa with digital connectivity – an experience to parallel internet services in countries such as the US. ‘Only fibre can deliver the speeds that enable Africans to experience what we call “the real internet”. As a household or business in Africa, you cannot really access high-definition digital media unless you have a high-speed fibre connection in addition to a mobile device,’ he says.

    Telecoms group Smile recently made headlines with the announcement that it had raised an investment of US$365 million – one of the largest funding rounds secured by a telecoms operator in Africa – to expand its African 4G network.

    Prior to the funding, Smile had launched superfast broadband (4G LTE) in Nigeria, Uganda and Tanzania.

    With the additional funds, the operator intends to expand quickly, the first step being the introduction of 4G services in the DRC, to be live early in 2016.

    According to Irene Charnley, founder and CEO of Smile, 4G is the future of broadband in Africa, as the costs associated with fibre roll-out are outside urban areas.

    She says that with governments in Africa prioritising broadband roll-out in recognition of its role in furthering economic growth, before long, the majority of the continent’s population could have access to stable broadband connectivity through wireless networks such as that of Smile.

    ‘Fixed lines in copper or fibre do not feature strongly outside of central business districts and, in fact, do not feature at all in rural areas. One of the reasons for this is the associated cost. In the long run, fibre will penetrate further, but there will always be a need for mobility and a need to get services beyond the reach of fibre,’ Charnley says.

    ‘Due to the impact of broadband penetration on job creation and GDP, and the push for targets by all governments, broadband will grow at a fast pace in Africa with most of the population having access to wireless broadband.’

    While agreeing that 4G caters to Africa’s demand for mobile internet access, Liquid Telecom’s Rudnick says: ‘Only fibre will be able to provide the speeds and capacity that LTE [long-term evolution techololgy] base stations need.’

    Consumers across Africa are demanding world-class connectivity to support their online activities

    Sudanese operator Sudatel has focused on connecting underserved rural areas in landlocked countries such as Chad, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Burkina Faso. According to CEO Tarig Hamza Zain el abdein, providing connectivity to such areas of Africa should be made an immediate priority for stakeholders, owing to the ‘massive’ number of people living in these regions. He says the financials behind connecting landlocked and rural areas don’t speak in favour of it but initiatives such as public-private partnerships, infrastructure sharing, and operators offering value-added services such as IPTV, e-government, e-commerce and data-centre services, could improve the value proposition to rolling out broadband to challenging areas.

    ‘[The issue of broadband being limited to affluent urban areas] will definitely continue for a while in Africa, but public-private, together with universal service funds and more co-operation between the communications service providers, can change this situation and reduce the digital divide,’ he says.

    Governments in Africa also have a role to play in encouraging universal service provision, by creating stable regulatory environments and incentivising investment. African governments are still facing high- priority and crucial challenges, including security, health and education, which are highly affecting their ability to support broadband connectivity. However, regulations are a very valuable asset, and can encourage the private sector to invest in such projects through proper incentives and regulatory frameworks, says Zain el abdein.

    Africa’s vast rural areas are home to significant portions of the continent’s population and still present challenges to operators providing broadband internet services. The costs and time constraints of rolling out fixed infrastructure across remote regions on the continent mean that these areas do not feature highly on providers’ lists of priority areas. As a result, rural inhabitants are not being afforded the same connectivity as their urban counterparts.

    Rudnick concedes that fibre is unlikely to be the solution to rural connectivity, although innovative uses of fibre could deliver service to certain areas. ‘Most cellular BTSs [base transceiver stations] in remote areas are unlikely to be connected by fibre as they are too expensive and time-consuming to lay for smaller populations in remote communities. These BTSs will continue to be served by wireless and satellite but will not be able to provide LTE speeds and capacity,’ he says.

    ‘One option to reduce costs can be fibre on the electricity poles that supply mains power to the base stations. We have already done large deployments of OPGW [optical ground wire] and ADSS [all-dielectric self-supporting] fibre in Zambia and Zimbabwe.’

    Once again, Smile’s Charnley believes 4G offers the solution with respect to rural areas as well. She says the costs of providing 4G coverage to remote areas are declining and, as small-cell solutions become more widespread, 4G coverage can be a reality in rural areas, and not just urban regions.

    ‘Urban areas and the high-income customers who tend to live there are, of course, critical to building a sustainable business. However, the costs of serving rural areas and low-income segments have declined, while the benefits to all stakeholders have increased,’ she says.

    ‘Smile’s network is, by design, lower in cost and more efficient. This means we have a lower break-even point than 3G operators, yet we deliver vastly superior services. By way of example, thoughtful small-cell solutions may now deliver 4G LTE broadband to communities within a 20 km distance from anywhere that has 4G LTE infrastructures.’

    As Africa’s urban populations increasingly gain access to high-speed broadband solutions, governments and industry stakeholders will need to consider how to make these services available in rural locations to avoid allowing Africa’s digital divide to grow ever wider.

    By Gabriella Mulligan
    Image: Istockphoto