Information communication technology (ICT) opens up a huge range of potential in the business environment, delivering integrated solutions that actively enable the modern business, says Mark van Vuuren, MD, Jasco ICT Solutions. 
Previously disparate tools such as voice, mobility, video, broadcasting and data have merged to deliver powerful enterprise solutions that enable organisations to compete on a global scale, all driven by connectivity. From basic Internet and telephony to sophisticated cloud offerings, connectivity and communication are the heart of ICT, and central to delivering these services is the network backbone, enabling access for connectivity.
While multiple undersea cables have landed on the African continent, providing the potential for high-speed connectivity, much of the population remains unable to access this, which is slowing business growth. Bridging the digital divide in Africa has never been more important, and the networks that deliver converged solutions are critical.
From basic infrastructure across countries, fixed line and mobile carrier networks to last mile access, along with data centres to support services and carrier-neutral hubs for the switching of traffic, there is much work to be done in bringing Africa up to speed and enabling the next frontier for growth.
Bringing cost effective bandwidth within reach of the business and consumers in Africa is vital for stimulating economies, and improving service delivery across a range of industry and governmental sectors including education and healthcare.
Achieving this in a cost effective manner requires partnerships between the public and private sector, as well as new approaches to infrastructure development. Delivering the network backbone across Africa will unlock potential and provide a host of opportunities for providers, businesses and the public sector alike.
By far the biggest challenge is to deliver affordable connectivity services, as the average budget within Africa is substantially lower than that of many Westernised markets. This challenge is compounded by the need to firstly build the physical infrastructure required to deliver services.
The traditional model for infrastructure delivery involves each provider building their own network, but this is not a cost effective option and will raise the price for connectivity services as well as extending the timeline for delivery.
An infrastructure sharing model delivered in partnership with public and private sectors will help to reduce the cost of deployment as well as the time to deploy, enabling services to be made available to a wider audience faster and less expensively.
A wholesale network, where multiple operators utilise the same infrastructure, with regulated tariffs to control costs, will enable services to be delivered in a cost effective way.
Building out the infrastructure also requires a mesh of different technologies, as while fixed-line fibre is the fastest and most stable connectivity option it also takes the longest to deploy.
The sheer scale and volume of data growth also means that one medium alone will not be sufficient to satisfy future demand. Wireless technologies such as WiFi, WiMax, 3G, LTE and microwave can be used to push services into new markets quickly, but these should always be followed up with a fixed-line infrastructure to ensure quality and availability of service.
The reality is that telecommunications has become a basic service, almost a utility like water and electricity, and it is a service that should be made available to as many people as possible as quickly as possible.
Owning the network is no longer where telecommunication companies should aim to differentiate themselves. Rather, last mile access and the services and value adds that can be delivered on top of the basic network should create a competitive environment, driving better services for customers.
Basic infrastructure problems need to be overcome to enable businesses in Africa to become more competitive, as this is what drives economic growth and change, enabling better services to be delivered, from basics like healthcare and education to sophisticated offerings in the business space.
The African market offers a host of opportunities for service providers, system integrators and network infrastructure providers. From building the network to providing data centres, co-location and switching facilities and Internet exchanges, right down to content and Web hosting and hosted services, Africa is ripe for ICT solutions.
Investment into Africa and building up local businesses to deliver these services is critical, in order to deliver services and solutions that meet the needs and culture of various countries.  Partnerships between the public and private sector are necessary to ensure sustainability of enterprises.
From basic network infrastructure to take international bandwidth into the continent, to the last mile access needed to take advantage of this bandwidth. End-to-end ICT and the networks that form the backbone of ICT are critical in enabling economic growth and improved service delivery in Africa.