In­ter­net ac­cess is no longer a lux­ury

Fi­bre-op­tics could leap-frog Africa into the fu­ture

Africa Renewal - - Contents - By Joel Macharia Joel Macharia is an en­tre­pre­neur and con­sul­tant in tech­nol­ogy and dig­i­tal me­dia in Nairobi, Kenya.

It is early morn­ing in Nairobi, the Kenyan cap­i­tal. The traf­fic jam along Ngong Road, one of the city’s main feeder roads, stretches for kilo­me­tres as mata­tus (taxis), buses and cars try to make their way into the cen­tral busi­ness district. At the top floor of Bishop Magua Cen­tre com­plex, sit­ting just off Ngong Road, Antony Njoroge is al­ready at work, typ­ing away at his com­puter, a mug of freshly brewed cof­fee be­side him. He is the founder of Rev Web, a lo­cal soft­ware devel­op­ment com­pany.

Njoroge works out of iHub, a work­ing space that hosts de­vel­op­ers, de­sign­ers and others work­ing with tech­nol­ogy soft­ware. It is one of the most well-known tech hubs in Africa. In just four years since its found­ing, the iHub has over 13,000 mem­bers in its on­line and off-line com­mu­nity, held close to 500 events and had over 50 com­pa­nies call­ing it home.

The growth of iHub rep­re­sents how in­for­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nol­ogy (ICT) in Kenya has ad­vanced over the past 15 years. This dig­i­tal revo­lu­tion started in 1999 with the en­try into mar­ket of KenCell ( later Zain, and now Bharti Air­tel) and Sa­fari­com mo­bile net­work op­er­a­tors. In 2001, the Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Com­mis­sion of Kenya re­ported that the num­ber of mo­bile phone sub­scribers had “in­creased to a stag­ger­ing 330,000.” Look­ing back, that fig­ure seems laugh­able; in 2013 the same com­mis­sion re­ported 30 mil­lion sub­scribers.

The scene is no dif­fer­ent across Africa; mo­bile phone pen­e­tra­tion has grown from 1% in 2000 to 54% in 2012. To­day there are more than 754 mil­lion con­nec­tions in sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa and over 35 mo­bile net­work op­er­a­tors in Africa. Several coun­tries, such as Sey­chelles, Tu­nisia, Morocco and Ghana, have mo­bile sub­scrip­tion pen­e­tra­tion rates in ex­cess of 100%. Tu­nisia, at 120%, has 10.8 mil­lion more cell-phone con­nec­tions than it has ci­ti­zens.

There is no doubt that mo­bile in­fra­struc­ture has be­come as im­por­tant to na­tional economies as road or en­ergy in­fra­struc­ture. Aside from pro­vid­ing voice and in­ter­net ac­cess, mo­bile net­works in some African coun­tries now fa­cil­i­tate more in­di­vid­ual and small busi­ness fi­nan­cial trans­ac­tions than the bank­ing in­dus­try. Kenya’s M-pesa, a SMS-based money trans­fer sys­tem, moves over $24 mil­lion each day, about $8.8 bil­lion an­nu­ally – or 40% of the coun­try’s GDP – within its 17 mil­lion strong user net­work. EcoCash in Zim­babwe, run by Econet Wire­less, signed up 2.3 mil­lion Zim­bab­weans in just 18 months after its launch in Septem­ber 2011, out­num­ber­ing all of Zim­babwe’s tra­di­tional bank­ing ac­counts com­bined. Over a mil­lion of these ac­counts are ac­tive and push about $200 mil­lion of vol­ume over the EcoCash plat­form ev­ery month, ac­cord­ing to the Global Strate­gic Mar­ket­ing Al­liance, a global con­sult­ing firm.

The sec­ond wave of Africa’s dig­i­tal revo­lu­tion came in the lat­ter half of the last decade, with the con­nec­tion of the con­ti­nent to the rest of the world via un­der­sea fi­bre- op­tic ca­bles. These ca­bles have dra­mat­i­cally in­creased the trans­mis­sion ca­pac­ity of data and dras­ti­cally re­duced trans­mis­sion time and costs. Prior to fi­bre- op­tic in­stal­la­tion, in­ter­net ser­vice providers re­lied on satel­lite con­nec­tions, pay­ing up to $2,300 per month for ba­sic satel­lite con­nec­tions. Us­ing fi­bre-op­tic ca­bles, they can now get the same con­nec­tion for less than $100. It is on this wave that tech hubs such as Kenya’s iHub, Tan­za­nia’s Kinu, Nige­ria’s CcHUb and South Africa’s Joz­iHub in Johannesburg came into ex­is­tence.

There are now 16 un­der­sea ca­bles con­nect­ing Africa to the Amer­i­cas, Europe and Asia. All but two coun­tries— Eritrea and Western Sa­hara—with a coast­line have a ca­ble land­ing on their shores, tripling the in­ter­net ca­pac­ity in Africa over the past three years. A sin­gle ca­ble can have mul­ti­ple docks. For ex­am­ple the Sea­com ca­ble serves Kenya, Tan­za­nia, Mozam­bique and South Africa.

The num­ber of in­ter­net users on the con­ti­nent grew at seven times the global av­er­age, clock­ing more than 3,600% growth be­tween 2000 and 2012, to 167 mil­lion users, ac­cord­ing to data from In­ter­net World Sta­tis­tics, a web­site that tracks in­ter­net and so­cial me­dia us­age. In Kenya, which has been Africa’s leader in in­ter­net us­age growth, the Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Com­mis­sion of Kenya re­ports that in­ter­net users grew from 200,000 in 2000 to over 19.6 mil­lion at the end of last year, a stag­ger­ing 9,700% growth.

How­ever, as im­pres­sive as the num­bers look, it has not been all smooth-sail­ing. Take the case of South Africa, for ex­am­ple. Over the next few years, South Africa ex­pects an ad­di­tional four fi­bre-op­tic ca­bles to link it to the rest of the world, in­creas­ing its ca­pac­ity sig­nif­i­cantly. How­ever, play­ers in the mar­ket are not con­vinced the new ca­bles will make a dif­fer­ence due mainly to con­nec­tiv­ity prob­lems.

“Whilst some of these new ca­bles will no doubt change the sup­ply sit­u­a­tion which will re­duce the cost of in­ter­na­tional ca­pac­ity, I don’t think they’ll have a big im­pact for the vast ma­jor­ity of users in south­ern Africa; most costs are do­mes­tic rather than in­ter­na­tional,” Mark Simp­son, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of Sea­com, a sub­ma­rine fi­bre-op­tic com­pany, told Africa in Fact, a pub­li­ca­tion of Good Gov­er­nance Africa, an ad­vo­cacy group.

The prob­lem in South Africa lies not in ca­pac­ity but in con­nec­tiv­ity. Once docked at the coast, the con­nec­tions need to make it to homes and busi­nesses. While a na­tional fi­bre-op­tic grid is cur­rently un­der con­struc­tion, the lines have not reached the “last mile”, that is the ac­tual phys­i­cal con­nec­tion to homes or busi­nesses.

Telkom, the state tele­coms op­er­a­tor, the only com­pany in charge of the last mile, is re­spon­si­ble for the de­lay, says Africa

in Fact. Con­sumers of­ten wait months to get the nec­es­sary lines in­stalled. This prob­lem is not unique to South Africa. In Zam­bia, for in­stance, most sa­fari lodges, which are a key part of the coun­try’s tourism in­dus­try, are forced to de­pend on un­re­li­able satel­lite in­ter­net con­nec­tiv­ity, even when they are near metropoli­tan ar­eas, be­cause there is sim­ply no other op­tion.

Leo Mu­tuku, head of iHub’s Data Sci­ence Lab­o­ra­tory, agrees that the big­gest chal­lenge has been the last mile con­nec­tions, es­pe­cially out­side ur­ban ar­eas where there are sig­nif­i­cant dif­fi­cul­ties in ac­cess­ing broad­band in­ter­net. “A lot of the peo­ple liv­ing within 25kms of a fi­bre- op­tic ca­ble do so [ac­cess the in­ter­net] pos­si­bly be­cause it passes by their vil­lages headed to the next town,” says Mu­tuku, adding that in­ter­net ser­vice providers do not find it vi­able to make sig­nif­i­cant in­vest­ments lay­ing ca­bles to each home.

With no pri­vate in­vest­ments to sup­port the lay­ing of the last mile, es­pe­cially in ru­ral Africa, the govern­ment’s role in fund­ing fi­bre-op­tic de­ploy­ment is cru­cial. How­ever, gov­ern­ments across the con­ti­nent have not cre­ated en­abling en­vi­ron­ments by pass­ing ap­pro­pri­ate laws.

“Fun­da­men­tally, the big­gest is­sue hold­ing back ac­cess is the slow pace of the reg­u­la­tory process,” Arthur Gold­stuck, a South African ICT in­dus­try an­a­lyst says. “If the pol­icy di­rec­tives aren’t forth­com­ing, then reg­u­la­tory ad­vance­ment is not forth­com­ing,” he added.

Africa in Fact lists South Africa’s pol­icy di­rec­tives as in­clud­ing the re­moval of Telkom’s mo­nop­oly over the fixed-line net­work, the es­tab­lish­ment of a strong reg­u­la­tory pol­icy to un­bun­dle lo­cal loop to give other providers di­rect ac­cess to Telkom’s ex­changes and bet­ter man­age­ment of the elec­tro­mag­netic spec­trum on which wire­less, ra­dio and TV sig­nals are broad­cast.

African gov­ern­ments are slow in pass­ing laws that pro­vide guid­ance on the devel­op­ment and use of ICT in­fra­struc­ture. Nige­ria, for in­stance, re­lies on laws of yes­ter­year. Its ICT is cur­rently ad­min­is­tered un­der three main pol­icy doc­u­ments: the Na­tional Mass Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Pol­icy of 1990, the Na­tional Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions Pol­icy of 2000, and the Na­tional Pol­icy for In­for­ma­tion Tech­nol­ogy of 2000.

On the other hand, Tu­nisia is one of the lead­ing ICT coun­tries. This was high­lighted when Tu­nisians ex­ten­sively used so­cial me­dia in oust­ing for­mer Pres­i­dent Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011. With an in­ter­net pen­e­tra­tion rate of more than 41% in 2012, Tu­nisians are among the world’s most ac­tive users of Twit­ter and Face­book, ac­cord­ing to In­ter­net World Stats. The coun­try’s in­ter­net in­fra­struc­ture is also fairly mod­ern, with two ground con­nec­tions to Libya and Al­ge­ria and three un­der­sea ca­bles to Europe. How­ever, in­ter­net con­nec­tiv­ity and ac­cess is lim­ited to Tu­nisians liv­ing along the coast.

As with other re­gions, Africa also faces the threats posed by in­ter­net se­cu­rity and pri­vacy is­sues. In its at­tempt to cre­ate en­abling leg­is­la­tion, the African Union crafted the Con­ven­tion on Cy­ber­Se­cu­rity (AUCC) in 2011 to pro­vide leg­is­la­tion and guid­ance on the “or­ga­ni­za­tion of elec­tronic trans­ac­tions, pro­tec­tion of per­sonal data, pro­mo­tion of cy­ber se­cu­rity, e-gov­er­nance and com­bat­ting cy­ber­crime.” The con­ti­nen­tal body is cur­rently seek­ing rat­i­fi­ca­tion of the con­ven­tion, but has met re­sis­tance from civil so­ci­ety or­ga­ni­za­tions who feel the con­ven­tion in­fringes on ci­ti­zens’ rights to free­dom of ex­pres­sion and pri­vacy. Some of its pro­vi­sions will also make it dif­fi­cult for in­ter­net ser­vice providers and on­line busi­nesses to op­er­ate. A vote to rat­ify the con­ven­tion was post­poned in­def­i­nitely last Jan­uary.

While Africa’s growth in mo­bile and in­ter­net ac­cess has been ris­ing faster over the last decade than any other re­gion of the world, the con­ti­nent is still play­ing catch-up. It still has the low­est per­cent­age of pop­u­la­tion ac­cess­ing the in­ter­net, at only 15% in 2012. The con­tin­u­ing in­vest­ment in in­fra­struc­ture, drop­ping costs, ris­ing in­comes and de­mo­graph­ics, how­ever, will lead to a far greater growth over the next decade.

Speak­ing to Africa in Fact mag­a­zine, Steve Song, an ad­vo­cate for bet­ter con­nec­tiv­ity in Africa said: “Af­ford­able ac­cess is no longer a lux­ury. It is a tide that raises all ships. It cre­ates ef­fi­cien­cies at ev­ery level from the ru­ral farmer to the large cor­po­ra­tion. It can fa­cil­i­tate bet­ter gov­er­nance through bet­ter com­mu­ni­ca­tion and in­creased trans­parency. It can en­able bet­ter health­care, bet­ter ed­u­ca­tion, bet­ter ser­vices all round. And per­haps most im­por­tantly, it opens the doors to in­no­va­tion, to new ideas and new op­por­tu­ni­ties for ev­ery­one.”

Stu­dents do­ing home­work at home in Cape Town, South Africa

Nikki Rixon

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