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Infrastructure investment to boost Africa's internet connectivity

posted 18 Jun 2012, 06:15 by Mpelembe   [ updated 18 Jun 2012, 06:16 ]

Internet connectivity spurs the growth of African economies, but investment in building the infrastructure to help meet growing demand for fast and reliable broadband -- especially in poorer countries needs to catch up.

The arrival of the fibre optic cable brought with it promises of faster more reliable internet -- the days of slow speeds and hours wasted staring at computer screens waiting for emails to download were gone.
Africa's internet connectivity through satellite is now almost a thing of the past as new terrestrial and submarine cables connect the continent to the rest of he world. Sub-Saharan Africa alone has nine submarine cables, with a total capacity of 22 terabytes, the volume of traffic that can be transmitted by optic fibre cables.

According to Aidian Baigrie from Seacom -- a company which builds and operates submarine fibre optic cables, connecting communication carriers in South and East Africa, undersea cables means internet is getting cheaper and usage is set to grow even faster.

"Three years ago, the pricing was vastly different to what is it is today. To give an example, in Africa the cost of a megabyte in some of the more advanced countries or for 10 megabytes was about a dollar and half. What we are seeing today to get 10 megabytes is probably an equivalent of 20 US cents, so we have seen huge and vast change in pricing over the last three years, and that is reflected in these massive growth in subscriber numbers. We are expecting about 150 million more internet users in Africa to come on in the next three years," he said.

Numerous studies have identified cheap and quick internet as a factor that can boost a country's economic growth. A 10 percent rise in broadband penetration is linked to a 1.3 percent increase in economic growth, according to the World Bank.

Small internet based businesses are also feeling the positive effects of speedy and affordable connectivity.

Keabetswe Modise owns a graphic design company that operates in South Africa's commercial capital Johannesburg.

"It is cheap and it's reliable and your documents get kept there, so you cannot loose your documents, if you misplace or something happens to your system or you have to repair or reformat your system, you know that you got your information backed up in emails," he said.

Duncan McLeod, an internet and innovations expert says that massive investment and focus on growing the infrastructure is still needed for even better access to broadband, but South Africa, the continent's biggest economy is steps ahead from other parts of Africa.

An international survey done this year put South Africa along with France, Canada, Australia, Poland, and Belgium, with about 75 percent of people banking online.

"There is a massive over-investment in undersea cables, we have eight or ten of these things coming down our shoreline, more investments are coming. The other day we heard about BRICS cables to link Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa to the US, there is also WACS cable across Atlantic ocean which is going to bring massive amounts of capacity in the next two years. There are other projects between here and Brazil and the US, so I think the under sea cables infrastructure leg which was big impediment before the first domino that really that had fall, has fallen and now we need to see much more investment in terrestrial fibre networks which is starting to happen certainly in South Africa," he said.

But the reality is, as providers spend more on growing the infrastructure, the costs are expected to be passed on to consumers, making access prohibitively expensive for small start ups as well as various countries where the cables have yet to arrive.

"Unfortunately what we see often in the market service providers don't want to give up very healthy margins that they are enjoying. So in the past for example the excuse they gave for not bringing down the cost of bandwidth was that international bandwidth was so expensive, with the undersea cables the cost of international bandwidths has plummeted, but now the excuse is "oh no it was not the international bandwidth, it was the cost of local infrastructure. So the local a access cost and infrastructure cost it is actually what it dictates cost of our bandwidth, so we can only bring it down so much or we can't bring it down at all," said Arthur Goldstuck a technology consultant in Johannesburg.

Meanwhile, Africa's limited internet infrastructure means that mobile phones are becoming the point of entry for high-speed Internet.

Industry giants such as South African group MTN, Indian operator Bharti Airtel and France Telecom's Orange unit, as well as smaller firms like South Africa's unlisted Cell C, are ramping up investments to win the new battleground of high-speed internet via mobile phones.

Kenya's mobile service provider, Safaricom expects a surge in demand for data services in the east African nation of 40 million people, thanks to an explosion of Internet-ready, hand-held devices, and an increase in the number of relevant applications and content.

In Nigeria, the number of people with internet access could triple over the next two years, mirroring the explosion in mobile phone usage in Africa's most populous nation.

But Goldstuck says the growth in mobile internet availability comes at the cost of quality.

"In South Africa, the price of broadband has been very stubborn in terms of not coming down fast enough. In East Africa particularly Kenya, we have seen dramatic drops in pricing especially in the mobile broadband, but the problem with that, is that the quality of broadband often is not the greatest, so there is compromise between cost and quality,"he said.

According to the International Telecommunication Union last year, at least seven African countries were still wholly dependent on satellite Internet.

With Sierra Leone and Liberia recently welcoming the undersea ACE (Africa Coast to Europe) the Central African Republic, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Guinea, Liberia, São Tomé and Príncipe and the Seychelles all lack fibre optic connections to the wider world.