An African ICT Explosion
Since these historic WSIS events (3003 and 2005) a lot has been achieved. Most governments have developed an Information and Communication policy and established a framework needed to foster the uptake of Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) in their respective countries. Many governments have established dedicated ministries and regulatory bodies and policy needed to coordinate their ICT efforts. Early framework and legislation have been implemented and considerable investment in infrastructure continues to be made. Public sector utilities have been liberalized and most governments now actively encourage private sector development. It is hard to find an African government who does not see the value of ICTs or encourage their implementation on some level.
As the result of African governments implementing many of these initiatives, the continent is in the process of experiencing a digital communications explosion. Nowhere has growth been so rapid or had such a marked impact. The uptake in both mobile and Internet access the last three years is significant and positively reflects these initial efforts. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) says that the mobile phone industry in Africa is growing at twice the global rate and remains the fastest growing mobile phone market in the world. David Rogers of Open Mobile Terminal Platform says, ‘More people have access to a mobile phone than have access to running water. More people have access to a data enabled mobile phone than there are desktop computers in the world.’ The spread of mobile in Africa is rampant and continues to spread faster than even our wildest expectations. More than 60% of Africa has access to a mobile phone that is soon to be the continent’s most ubiquitous piece of technology.
Some statistics 2008:
• The total African mobile subscriber base is roughly 280.7 million people (30% of total)
• The total African mobile subscriber base is expected to reach 561 million (53.5%) by 2012.
• The mobile penetration rate in South Africa is 84%
• South Africa, Nigeria, Morocco, Egypt, Algeria and Kenya constitute the key mobile markets in Africa in terms of potential growth.
• At least 15 operators have already announced plans of introducing 3G voice and data services (including among others, Tanzania, Kenya and Nigeria)
• SMS is being used in innovative ways such as pricing information for agricultural products, mobile banking and human rights abuse notifications.
This growth is also reflected in the spread of Internet connections that have increased by 1,031.2% between 2000 and 2008. 5.4% of the African population now has access to the Internet and the continent accounts for 3.4% of the global Internet population. Internet access continues to grow faster than any other part of the world. New telecom infrastructure is set to boost capacity and cut tariffs, further unlocking the continent’s high-speed Internet potential and creating new growth opportunities.
U.S. based advisory firm AfricaNext Investment Research expects Africa’s broadband market to grow from 2.7 million subscribers in 2007 to 12.7 million users in 2009. AfricaNext says submarine cables and national networks due to launch this year and next will only accelerate the process. This trend is strengthened by the emergence of wireless technology such as EVDO and WiMax. The group argues that, ‘2009 could represent the most significant opportunity for investment returns in the African telecoms sector since the mobile voice boom, which saw subscribers rocket to 270 million in 2007 from 2 million nine years earlier.’
East Africa offers the greatest room for development. Where West Africa benefits from high-speed Internet connectivity, supplied by the SAT-3 cable that connects the continents’ Western seaboard, East Africa still depends on slow dial-up and expensive satellite connections. A 2005 study by a U.N. task force found that 90 percent of calls between African countries are routed by satellite through Europe or North America at a cost of $400 million a year. Some experts claim that bandwidth prices in Africa can be as much as 25 times greater than equivalent service in Europe. BMI TechKnowledge, a research firm based in South Africa explains, ‘projects worth around $6 billion, including 10 undersea cables and several national networks, are planned or under construction in Africa.’ These recent investments in undersea cables and national networks could make the difference in ‘unlocking’ the region.
One example is SEACOM, the Mauritius-registered private equity venture. The organization has invested $650 million in fiber-optic undersea cable that will link east and southern Africa to Europe and Asia. The cable has reached the shores of Mombassa, Kenya and is currently making its way across the region. Another initiative is the EASSy submarine network, a second investment worth $265 million and scheduled to be completed in 2010. The project is owned by African operators, including Telkom Kenya and Telkom South Africa, and has the potential to supply additional bandwidth to 23 landlocked African countries. Richard Hurst, telecoms analyst at global telecoms advisory firm IDC, explains international bandwidth rates were expected to drop to a fifth or less of current rates of $3,000 per megabit after these two cables are in operation. Richard Hurst says, ‘Undersea cables are a major positive step in a right direction.’ Two other projects, TEAMs (The East African Marine System) and Lion, will only add to supply and further spur competition.
At the same time, African governments are starting to upgrade their national infrastructure. MTN, and second fixed-line operator Neotel, are rolling out 5,000 km national network in South Africa. Angola and Zambia have also either recently expanded or plan to beef up their national networks. The government of Uganda is in the process of completing a national fiber optic backbone that will serve to connect a large part of the country, most importantly in rural areas. AfricaNext says, ‘There is a confluence of indicators that suggest that for the first time in more than a decade, broadband growth in the African continent may be on the verge of truly taking off.’
Developments are not limited to cable and local infrastructure. Jersey-based O3b Networks, which means the ‘other three billion’ people, is working to build satellite-based infrastructure. An eventual network of 16 satellites will bring high-speed Internet to even the most rural parts of the African continent. This will be made possible regardless of a country’s local infrastructure. O3b’s approach is different from that of traditional satellite communication. Normally communication satellites orbit the Earth at an altitude of around 22,000 miles, which can limit signal strength and bandwidth; O3b satellites will use cheaper medium earth orbit (MEO) satellites that only reach an altitude of around 6,000 miles. This design improves the strength of the signal and can provide speeds of up to ten gigabits per second. Greg Wyler, the founder of the company explains, ‘high-speed Internet access will bring a series of advantages to developing countries, including locally generated content, widespread e-learning, telemedicine and other enablers of social and economic growth.’ Google is one of the investors in the company and highlights the projects ambition to launch in the coming year. Eric E. Schmidt, Google’s chief executive officer, explains in an e-mail interview with the New York Times, ‘Africa is a huge long-term market for us. We have to start by helping people get online, and the creativity of the people will take care of the rest.’
Infrastructure aside, organizations increasingly understand that they need to adapt to the African context if they are going to successfully meet its needs. In the same article the New York Times expands, ‘People in the mobile-handset business talk about adding customers not by the millions but by the billions, if only they could get the details right.’ More specifically, ‘How do you make a phone that can be repaired by a street-side repairman who may not have access to new parts? How do you build a phone that won’t die a quick death in a monsoon or by falling off the back of a motorbike on a dusty road? Or a phone that picks up distant signals in a rural place, holds a charge off a car battery longer or that can double as a flashlight during power cuts?’ These are the issues that have been ignored in the past and are now a priority for organizations eager to work in the African context.
As a result, both Nokia and Sony Ericsson have opened research centers on the continent. On the Nokia website they explain, ‘Nokia Research Africa focuses on understanding the needs of the African mobile phone user and creates concepts and visions to fulfill these needs. The concepts are built into prototypes and pilots and then field tested.’ These African based research centers support the idea that companies have to embed themselves within a given context if they are to really understand it. This approach goes well beyond the techno deterministic approaches of the past as both companies now count anthropologists like Jan Chipchase amongst their ranks, people specialized in understanding the relationship between the technology and the user. Nokia goes on to explain, ‘the team must face some Africa specific challenges. The majority of Africans have extremely low-income level and less than 10% of the population has access to the fixed electricity grid. This creates a need for new models. Chris Kiagiri, a Google technology officer in Nairobi, says, ‘A lot of people assume Google is trying to replicate in Africa what it has done elsewhere. Sure, we want to bring existing products into this market. But we also want to organize information locally in a way we haven’t done elsewhere.’ Adding to the challenge is the more than 1000 languages spoken in 56 countries, sometimes in very isolated communities.’ Nokia, Sony Ericsson, Google and others highlight only some of the challenges organizations must overcome if they are to successfully engage the continent.
These developments are deep as they are wide and diverse. They mark a new era in which an increasing number of organizations and individuals recognize Africa’s potential to become a fundamental partner in this process. In a recent BBC interview with Dr. Diarra, the chairman of Microsoft in Africa, says, ‘Africa is really the last frontier in not only developing technology that is specific to people’s needs, but eventually even developing new business models that will enable the emergence of local software industries, such as young people who have the skills to be able to write their own applications for their own community.’ Microsoft is not known for making these kinds of statements. Historically the company has treated the African continent as a place to simply advertise and sell their products, as opposed to investing in African talent and developing company solutions locally. These remarks clearly acknowledge a shift in thinking and further hints to the emergence of something really new.
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