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Challenges for broadband in Africa

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Kathy Gibson reports from SATNAC 2015 – In many ways Africa is still the dark continent, and no development can take place without efficient energy.
That’s the word from Dr Mupanga Mwanakatwe, CEO of Zamtel, speaking at the South African Telecommunications and Network Applications Conference (SATNAC) today.
“From time immemorial we have always had a need to communicate,” Dr Mwanakawe points out.
“I believe Africa is a growing market. There is huge potential with 890-million subscribers at the end of 2014. With 240-milion of these being broadband, there is huge opportunity for growth.”
The number of subscribers is expected to grow to 1,1-billion by 2018, with 950-million broadband subscribers
This is complemented by good GDP growth taking place across the continent.
Some of the challenges include the need to modernise network infrastructures. “In fact, this could give us the opportunity to do some form of technology leapfrogging,” Dr Mwanakatwe says.
“This will require significant amounts of capex investment, which could be difficult but we have no options.”
Last mile access solutions must meet the unique challenges of Africa, he adds.
“There is sometimes unstructured planning that leads to high network costs,” Dr Mwanakatwe adds. “So we must ensure that the delivery of last mile is done is a structured and efficient way. If we had a national perspective, we could avoid inefficient and expensive rollouts.”
He adds that last mile radio access must be relevant to circumstance and perhaps requires a ‘horses for courses’ approach.
Although Zamtel is already rolling out fibre to the home (FTTH) in Kabulonga (formerly Lusaka), this is far from the norm in less structured or lower-density areas.
Interconnectivity to the rest of the world is another challenge for Africa, particularly those countries that are land-locked, Dr Mwanakatwe says.
“Apart from the cost of the submarine cables, there are also high costs for national cross-border optic fibre costs,” he says. “In addition, many of these links are unreliable, without resilient rings that suffer from frequent failures or outages.
“In Zambia, we have three cables and sometimes two of these could be down.”
Dr Mwanakatwe believes a well co-ordinated Africa-wide optic fibre development plan is necessary. “What concerns me is that we tend to work in silos and don’t make optimum use of our limited resources in Africa.”
And power is absolutely critical, he stresses. “It will all come to nought without the availability of reliable, cheap, clean power – this is a pre-requisite for the successful nationwide ICT deployment.”
In Zambia, for instance, Zamtel uses deep cycle batteries in conjunction with the grid to keep the telecommunications networks running even when the power goes out.
National regulators have a huge role to play in the deployment of telecommunications services on the continent, he adds.
A heavy handed national regulator can hinder the industry, stifling technological innovation, reducing uptake and deployment of new technologies and ultimately creating a an unconducive environment that will negatively impact the ability to roll out broadband services.
“Conversely, a light handed approach till encourage technological innovation and the deployment of hr technologies, increasing the risk taking by entrepreneurs,” Dr Mwanakatwe says.
Assuming operators on the continent are able to deploy state of the art telecommunications networks with ubiquitous high speed last mile access, with a metro and national backbone fibre network, reliable high-speed connectivity, running with reliable cost-effective green power solutions, he adds.
“Once we have the networks, what will we run over them?” Dr Mwanakatwe asks. “Content will drive data usage, but needs to be relevant to addressing our peculiar needs and challenges as Africans.
“This means it needs to be in local language. The youth market offers the greatest potential for growth; and the rural market must not be ignored. ”
Dr Mwanakatwe believes that Africa remains a very willing recipient for imported technology. “But should we be content to wallow in this status quo?” he asks.
“And can we change this status quo and start to drive our own technology agenda?”
He recommends a bottom-up approach to the challenge, adapting and adopting the technology that suits the continent’s peculiar needs.
“Blue sky technology will come as a natural consequence,” he adds.
“In addition, I would like to land a handset in my network for less than $10; and entry-level smartphones for less than $50. Surely a business case can be made ofr the design and manufacture of these types of handset whose potential African market runs into the hundreds of millions?”
To achieve all of its goals, Dr Mwanakatwe suggests the implementation of focussed and industry R&D, the protection of intellectual property rights and a continent-wide development agenda.
“Are we setting and focussing our own Africa-focused high-tech agenda?” Dr Mwanakatwe asks. “Can we deliver high-speed, affordable broadband services, with relevant content to all our populace?
“It is not about 5G in Sandton; it is about transforming the lives of all the continent’s citizens.
“If we get the pre-requisites right now, with a well-thought out and comprehensive action plan, singular focus of long-term forward thinking, co-operating on a mutual national, regional and Africa wide collaboration.
“It will not happen by accident.”