Is West Africa ready for Anywhereization?

Monday, April 13 2015


The internet can be seen as a ubiquitous commodity in most developed countries, and being able to get online is something most people take for granted. Some might even see it as a basic necessity for day-to-day life. Unfortunately, the proliferation of Internet has lagged behind in Africa. It made its debut in West Africa in 1993, when the first dial-up connection via France was established by French research agency ORSTOM. However, it wasn’t until about a decades later (2002) that a significant portion of West Africa hooked up to the global internet backbone through the South Atlantic 3/West Africa Submarine Cable (SAT-3/WASC). This submarine cable system is 14,350km long and runs from South Africa to London.

At a moderate 26.5%, the internet penetration rate in Africa is still quite low but the arrival of sub-marine communication cable systems to the shores of Africa have been a major game-changer. Operating at 9200Gbps in the northern segment (north of Ghana) and 800Gbps in the Southern segment, the SAT-3/WASC has the tremendous potential  to bring the internet to millions of new users across Africa. This cable system provides direct connectivity to the internet backbone and perhaps has one of the lowest latency routes from Africa to Europe, at least according to Alcatel Lucent. Countries such as Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola and Namibia now have direct access to the internet for the first time. Smaller operators are now able to secure direct capacity to the internet backbone as a result of the open-access policy. Mobile broadband, 4G and LTE are no longer far-fetched, and may actually be realized in the near future. This cable system has reduced the region’s heavy reliance on expensive satellite connections for the internet access. Never the less, challenges including connecting terrestrial end points, overcoming political bottlenecks, and wholesale pricing etc., still stand in the way of realizing a truly connected Africa.

In a globally connected world where we preach innovation and Anywhereization, we cannot afford to have ‘dead’ zones on the internet map. Much of Africa still remains offline, and despite the rapid increase in the number of internet users across the continent in recent times, a lot still has to be done to attain the penetration levels we see in the developed world. Rickard Bäcklin, Vice president of TSIC stresses the importance of continuous investment in infrastructure and Technology to connect more people and networks, thereby fulfill the increasing demands of Anywhereization. We must dare to take our network to places where no man has been before. After all, going by Metcalfe’s law, every additional user only helps to strengthen the network, leading to a win-win situation. Africa is fairly new to the game, and has a lot of un-tapped business potential. Understandably, the political climate amongst other things could be a major deterrent for foreign Telco’s expanding to Africa, but in another decade the first-movers will be the ones laughing all the way to the bank. Just like in most other areas, the evolution of Telecommunications technology in Africa hardly adheres to the same patterns that we have seen over the years in Europe and America. In Africa, we notice a different scenario where all the legacy systems are simply bypassed. Telegraphs for example, hardly existed in Africa, and the traditional PSTN systems barely came to life before being replaced by mobile phones. Some countries in Africa are now seeing a direct leap into 3G communication technology without stepping through the previous stages. There is a paradigm shift and what we must accept is the fact that most of these African countries will take less time to adopt the same communication technologies we see in the developed world. This exponential growth in the African Telecom sector means that the continent will probably be on par, with Europe and the rest of the world in just another decade. Thanks to the internet, the technological gap is being bridged faster than anyone could have imagined.

Taking the TSIC concept of anywhereization one step further, I would say that it is not just about always-on connectivity, but making sure that every last person in the world who wants to connect to the internet can do so. Needless to say, the internet has numerous benefits and brings positive change everywhere it goes. It is only by striving to reach every last user in the most remote parts of the world that we can truly say we are pulling our weight as a Telecom giant by empowering end users and make the world a truly global village.