By Paul Ndiho
June 27th 2012
Internet connectivity is spurring the growth of many African economies, but investment in building the infrastructure to help meet the rising demand for fast and reliable broadband — especially in poorer countries needs to catch up.
The arrival of the fiber-optic cable brought with it promises of faster more reliable internet service. Some analysts say the days of slow speeds and hours wasted staring at computer screens waiting for e-mails to download are over.
Africa’s internet connectivity through satellite is nearly a thing of the past, except in a few countries, as new terrestrial and submarine cables link the continent to the rest of the world. Sub-Saharan Africa alone has nine submarine cables, with a total capacity of 22 terabytes– the volume of traffic that can be transmitted via fiber-optic cable.
Aidian Baigrie, a representative of Seacom, a submarine fiber-optic cable networking company says undersea cables mean that internet service is getting cheaper and its usage is set to rise.
“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 this massive growth in subscriber numbers. We are expecting about 150 million more internet users in Africa to come on in the next three years.”
A World Bank study shows a ten percent rise in broadband penetration is linked to a 1.3 percent increase in economic growth and that 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 lose 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,”
Duncan Mcleod, an internet and innovations expert observes 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 of other parts of Africa.
“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.
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 West Africa, the number of people in Nigeria with internet access could triple over the next two years, mirroring the explosion in MOBI. But Goldstuck cautions that the growth in mobile internet availability comes at the cost of quality.
“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.”
The international telecommunication union says several African countries are still wholly dependent on satellite internet. With Sierra Leone and Liberia recently welcoming the undersea Africa coast to Europe fiber-optic cabling. Other african nations including the central african republic, chad, the democratic republic of Congo, Eritrea and Liberia, all lack fiber-optic connections to the wider world.