On June 7th, 2012 at the Inaugural ICT Indaba; an African Ministerial Declaration was made in which the African ICT ministers declared “a common desire and commitment to eradicate barriers of poverty through the promotion and use of enabling ICTs to build and foster a people-centred knowledge based economy in Africa”. The Ministers went on to declare “access to broadband as a basic human right in Africa and commit to increasing broadband penetration to approximately 80 per cent of the population by 2020. This common vision draws its basis from the positive impact exerted on economic growth through increasing Accessibility, Affordability and Availability to broadband/internet by all”. This was at a time when Africa was vastly expanding its fibre optic cable network as it is doing at this present moment.
Under-sea cable was largely non-existent in the African interior in 2009 except for the coastal areas of North and West Africa as well as South Africa. Fast forward six years later, the continent has taken giant leaps in the installation of fibre optic cables into its interior. Prior to this the continent was relying on slower and expensive satellite for internet connection. Better internet speeds and coverage have been achieved through massive investments by several high profile companies that have envisioned an Africa that has more affordable internet, is connected within and to the rest of the world by way of the fibre optic cable.
Some of the companies that have poured in combined investments in excess of billions of dollars in the creation of internet capacity by means of undersea cables in Africa are Seacom, EASSy, TEAMs, WACs, MaineOne, GLO1 and ACE. Smaller but equally important players that aim to build the capillary network of Africa’s terrestrial fibre connections have emerged and these include Telkom, Fibreco and DFA in South Africa, Multilinks in Nigeria and Maroc Telecom in Morocco among many others. Some firms like Liquid Telecom Group have taken it upon themselves to lay the fibre in more than one country with the firm registering a presence across several nations namely Botswana, the DRC, Kenya, Lesotho, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Liquid Telecoms recently revealed that they are building an average of 100 km of fibre across Africa per week.
The most encouraging development is that not only private firms have been involved in building the terrestrial cable across the continent but also government owned electricity and railway network firms. An example is BOFINET in Botswana where the government financed the construction of national fibre network covering more than 2000 km. This was completed in 2008. The World Bank has provided USD 424 million to boost regional networks in eastern and southern Africa under the Regional Communications Infrastructure Programme (RCIP). This programme aims to increase traffic by up to more than 30 per cent and also to reduce of the overall bandwidth costs. The World Bank has also spent about USD 33 million in the DR Congo on fibre related projects. International firms have also participated in the expansion of the fibre capillaries into Africa. A perfect example is Google which has built high speed fibre-optic networks to improve broadband access in Uganda. The combined result of all these efforts is a near double increase in Africa’s total inventory of fibre optic cables in five years from 465,659km in 2009 to 958,901km in June 2014. Over the same period the continent’s internet speed has increased twenty-fold, surpassing the 2 Terabits per second hurdle.
Fibre-optic cables have come with high expectations into the continent. According to data from the World Bank, the number of internet users in North Africa (all income levels) rose from 11.8 to 35 per hundred in the period 2006 to 2012. The number per hundred internet users in sub-Saharan (all income groups) also rose from 3.1 to 14 within the same period. Although the total length of cable laid in Africa has almost doubled in the past six years, the continent is still catching up with the rest of the world. Positive economic and social gains have been attained due to fibre expansion into the continent. The general benefits of this new technology are summarised below.
Reduction in the general prices of internet prices across the continent.
Increased capacity to reach more people as an excess of over 350 million people now live within a 50km range from the fibre-optic cable which in the end accelerated the number of broadband subscribers.
New firms have emerged as broadband retailers that buy capacity from bigger and more established companies to service their respective areas, generating new business and creating employment.
Increase in e-government which is a digital platform by which governments interact with the population as quite a lot of government agencies and ministries across the length and breadth of the continent now have their own websites.
Enhancing of business to business connection as businesses have created their own online platforms on which they interact and even do business transactions.
Education especially at the tertiary levels will never be the same again as students are now using various internet platforms and tools to either improve the quality of their research work and assignments as well as to enhance distance learning; particularly those that would love to study with institutions that are not in Africa.
Africa now boasts of a fast emerging tech start-up culture as more and more countries get access as well as people get access to the internet at more
The above benefits are only part of what can be achieved by countries when they get connected to the internet. We all dream to see a day where internet connection becomes the basic human right of every African as the ICTs Indaba held in South Africa in 2012 declared. Until then, the continent can continue to dream as it builds its capacity. A toast to the dream of ubiquity and beyond!
(Image Credit: Hope Project)