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Broadband Internet coming to Africa

Michel Rogy's picture

The digital divide for voice services is closing at a rapid pace in Africa due to the spread of the basic mobile phone. With 500 million mobile phones on the African continent, more than in the US or European Union, Africa is the fastest growing region in the world.

However, just as one divide is closing, another one is opening wider as Africa is being left behind as a large part of the world transitions into the broadband era. Increasing the accessibility and affordability of broadband services is thus high on the agenda for policy makers in Africa. And this agenda is in-line with the International Telecommunication Union’s objective--Broadband For All Challenge to the World—to increase broadband penetration in developing countries from 10 percent to 50 percent by 2015. Broadband connectivity will have a profound positive effect on the long-term economic development of African countries and the way in which delivery of services in various sectors, education and health for example, will be made[1].

A number of submarine fibre-optic cable projects, connecting Africa to international networksare coming towards completion (see diagram below). Most of these projects have been funded through private-public partnerships (PPP) and a relatively straightforward infrastructure expansion projects.  The next stage is the more challenging terrestrial backbone networks (“missing links”) to be financed and operated by various stakeholders across country borders. The lack of nationally competitive infrastructure compared to the extent of supply and competition in submarine cables, is demonstrated by the fact that capacity from an African submarine landing station to Europe ($100-$300/Mbps/month) is usually cheaper than the in-country national backbone capacity ($500-$2000/Mbps/month)[2].

African countries that have fully liberalized their telecommunications markets are seeing as a result competition in backbone networks emerge. However, the telecommunications operators have generally focused on the most profitable geographical areas, primarily major urban areas and intercity routes. Populations living outside the major urban areas remain unlikely to benefit from the increased competition. Regional business models are emerging as cross-border backbone infrastructure expands and as network traffic transitions from simply voice communications services to Internet-based communications that involved data transmissions. Even further off the network are the landlocked countries in Africa that are still lacking appropriate connections to high-capacity submarine cables or to redundant connections that would help reduce prices.

If operators are to leverage the backbone networks to extend affordable broadband Internet outside of major urban areas as well as in landlocked countries, some form of public support or incentive may be required. Despite emerging international experience in using PPP vehicles to facilitate the practice of open access[3] to telecommunications backbone infrastructure, fostering trust and cooperation between the various stakeholders in such frontier markets, trusting and cooperative relationships is sometimes difficult to initiate and maintain.

Lessons learned from operations under regional connectivity projects of the World Bank[4] indicate (i) the need for some form of effective PPP or concession framework in the country as a prerequisite and (ii) that PPP and open access discussions often run into obstacles when it comes to the practical details of how to implement PPP and Open Access principles. Support for designing contracts and related licenses is therefore key to the successful development of PPP frameworks.

When turning to the effective roll out of the backbone networks, several issues need to be addressed upfront to minimize delays in project implementation, in particular:

·         Legal and regulatory uncertainties. Existing legal and regulatory frameworks often need to be reviewed to ensure unfettered, non discriminatory and cost-oriented access to submarine cable landing facilities as well as to national and international fiber backbones.  Support in the area of broadband regulation is also needed to assist the regulatory authorities in creating enabling environments for fair and effective competition in broadband services.

·         Licensing and transparency concerns. Mobile licenses generally include the right for operators to set up their transmission network both within the countries and to its borders. However in some countries it is sometimes argued that this applies merely to microwave and not to fiber; in other countries, uncertainty is caused by the set up of new auxiliary state bodies empowered to build shared national infrastructure and acquire existing infrastructure.

·         Delays in obtaining rights of ways. Obtaining rights of way takes typically between 6 and 12 months for a 1000 km fiber link, as it requires authorizations both from the ministry and from all local authorities along the chosen path.

·         Difficulties in obtaining authorizations for cross border connections. Cross border fiber connections take a long time (up to 3 years) to establish, particularly when they clash with a governments’ plan to have fiber backbones being built and operated by incumbent operators or to protect investments already made in international facilities[5].

·         Necessity to draft appropriate environmental and social safeguards. Rigorous safeguards are adhered to by projects financed by the World Bank and are generally mandatory under national law. Although fiber optic links are expected to follow major roads or railway tracks already in place, negative environmental and social impacts of the project could come from the laying of the fiber and have to be sufficiently mitigated. The negative environmental impacts resulting from the work mainly concern: soil erosion, water pollution, loss of vegetation due to deforestation to clear the right-of-way, etc. The significant negative social impacts will mainly concern the acquisition of land for the construction of infrastructure, the disruption of life setting, the occupation of private lands, the possible destruction of crops and forests, the risk of encroachment on areas of indigenous peoples, the risk of disruption of cultural areas during the excavation, the risks of accidents during the work, the risks of disruption of networks of other utilities (water, telephone, electricity), etc.

Broadband Internet has arrived in Africa namely in the form of submarine cables. In order for the majority of Africans to benefit from the new high-capacity infrastructure, there a re many hurdles to overcome. The market structure for telecommunications services need to be re-examined to ensure competition in broadband Internet; new operating business models will need to be experimented with to facilitate cross-border communications; PPP models for extending infrastructure into rural and less profitable areas will also need to be looked at closely; and large-scale public projects need to be aware of how broadband infrastructure roll-out will impact the physical and social landscape of Africa. If done properly and through thorough stakeholder consultations, Africa will start building a digital landscape.



[1]              In 2008, the World Bank conducted an econometric analysis across 120 countries to investigate the impact of higher penetration of broadband and other ICTs on economic growth (the average growth rate of per capita GDP) between 1980 and 2006. For developing countries, every 10 percentage point increase in the penetration of broadband services was associated with an increase in per capita GDP of 1.38 percentage points; Internet and mobile phone penetration were associated with a 1.12 and 0.81 percentage point increase, respectively. Although causality in the relationship between broadband and growth is hard to prove with the data available, analysis suggests high likelihood of causality.

[2]              See e.g. Sofrecom led consortium, PIDA ICT Study, 2011.

[3]              Open access” means permitting access to capacity by new entrants on transparent and non-discriminatory terms (price and non-price) and with cost-oriented prices.

[4]              The Bank has been actively supporting the African connectivity agenda under recent regional projects such as the Central African Backbone (CAB) program (started in 2009, operations now in: Chad, CAR, STP, Congo; Gabon), the Regional Communications Infrastructure Program (RCIP) in Eastern and Southern Africa (started in 2007, operations now in: Kenya, Madagascar, Burundi, Rwanda, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania; Uganda and Comoros under preparation), and the West Africa Regional Communications Infrastructure Program (started in 2010, operations now in: Sierra Leone, Liberia, The Gambia, Guinea, Burkina Faso ; Mauritania, Mali and Togo in preparation).

[5]              When completed, the harmonization of sector regulation that governs the ICT sector across African countries, particularly under the umbrella of regional economic organizations, will facilitate the establishment of cross border fiber connections.