27 Nov 2020 / Article

Africa’s last mile marathon

Despite subsea fibre optic cables having secured Africa’s connectivity with the rest of the world over the past fifteen years, a mere 5% of their design capacity is exploited. With the Fourth Industrial Revolution firmly grounded in broadband connectivity, access and uptake are vital for Africa’s future economy.

The domino effect of fibre deployment across Africa spurred by its abundant submarine capacity is an apt image for the links between broadband regulation, business, affordability and usage. The ‘last mile’ challenge, bringing broadband to mobile towers, businesses and homes, in both urban and rural areas (fibre-to-the-premises or FTTP) throws up a number of connected issues from sharing networks to affordability, uptake and relevant content.

It is time to take rapid and radical actions to deliver a universal, affordable and reliable broadband network to Africa”. Hou Tao, Global Vice President, Huawei

Extending a hand to the private sector

Driving fibre penetration involves clarity in governmental broadband policy and a regulatory environment that reduces red tape and facilitates business. In Mali, Dr Hamadoun Touré, the Minister of Digital Economy, also Founding Executive Director of SMART Africa and former Secretary-General of the International Telecommunication Union, aims to bring the private sector, regulators and the government together to find areas of cooperation. “I have studied the environment and the missing piece is a kind of network between the government and the private sector.” 

Public and private sector cooperation has facilitated business in Benin where the regulator has encouraged SMEs and bigger companies by digitising requisite procedures for rolling out networks, such as applying for building and land permits. Not only has this speeded up processes and brought down barriers, but it helps monitor ways to incentivise operators. 

 “When an operator wants to have a new submarine cable point in Benin, there is no need to wait for a long period, perhaps involving a private tender issued by the government. You just have to go to the regulator and ask for a simple authorisation, which is a straightforward procedure. We have done the same thing for high speeds”. Aurelie Adam Soule, Minister of Digital Economy, Benin

According to Aurelie Adam Soule, the clarity of Benin’s regulatory landscape for the digital economy provides operators with stability in terms of the operational requirements. 

Elisabeth Medou Badang, Senior Vice President for ME & Africa at Orange, a telecommunications corporation, takes the same view. Referring to Djoliba, Orange’s backbone network connecting eight cities across West Africa, she says: “Even if we wanted to undertake a similar project and raised the necessary financing, [without proper regulation] it is impossible in other countries where we operate today”. 

Bringing down investment costs for operators

A strongly regulated sector can also support the provision of a fair competitive environment. Network sharing, a key lever for cost reduction, can be promoted through wholesale open access, which enables service providers to offer end-user services that are cost-effective.

We have competition in the wholesale market […] and are working on connections to the national backbone and backhaul by giving the operator the possibility of having access to expand the capacity of the national backbone infrastructure through related offers of active and passive fibre optic infrastructure sharing”. Karima Mahmoudi, Central Director of the National Telecommunications Commission of Tunisia

Tunisia’s independent telecommunications regulatory authority has approved fixed broadband wholesale offers made available by the incumbent operator, Tunisie Telecom, as well as the use of radio technology, in particular 4G to complement wider technology through the box. The country’s penetration rates now stand at 57% and 42% (a 10-point increase in the last two years), respectively. 

In Nigeria, the government promoted infrastructure sharing by offering a two-year moratorium on wayleave charges for fibre deployment along roads, provided that the operators shared, where possible, the same trenches. The measure is a catalyst for fibre deployment, making it more affordable and improving the case for investment.

Other factors also contribute to bringing down costs. After massive construction projects in Asia, Europe and Latin America, the global provider of information and communications technology, Huawei, has introduced faster and more efficient solutions and methodologies for deploying fibre network. “Before we needed a specialised workforce to deploy the fibre network. Now it can be deployed by a normal workforce with simple training. Automated tools also generate detail to fibre network designs in minutes, which previously took weeks or months,” says Lu Libo, President of Network Marketing & Solution Sales at Huawei.

Making broadband affordable for users

A random sample of 50 megabits pricing shows that from country to country prices range from $38 to over $1,000. Making broadband affordable by driving down prices will carry over into higher uptake, which is key to broadband penetration. 

According to Dr Hamadoun Touré, internet prices are too high in Mali because wholesalers are selling directly to customers and squeezing out competition. Better pricing for internet service providers (ISPs) will boost competition, improve quality and provide better customer services.

Our greatest challenges are bringing down the costs and making internet affordable, while competition will enable us to create many SMEs that will in turn create jobs for the young”. Dr Hamadoun Touré, Minister of Digital Economy, Mali

Karima Mahmoudi agrees. Implementing a regulatory decision whereby the incumbent operator shares its infrastructure with competitors will, she says, “Ensure a decrease in the cost of connectivity and provide connectivity at an affordable price”. 

Yet despite many examples of best practice on the continent, Dr Towela Nyirenda-Jere, Principal Programme Officer at the African Union Development Agency (AUDA-NEPAD), points out that affordable and quality connectivity for the majority of the population cannot be achieved if countries work in isolation: “As a continent, I think we all realise that there is a great deal of dependencies which translate into issues and aspects of trade. With the coming in of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) everyone must move along in the same direction and rate.”

Ramping up user uptake

“The Orange fibre is being used at 20% of its full capacity which is a waste. We’re trying to make sure that there is greater uptake. First, the prices will go down”, says Dr Hamadoun Touré.

Making internet affordable is a first step towards internet uptake, but only part of the solution. Another effective strategy is for governments to focus on educational institutions, which can increase early demand and usage in students ‒ the entrepreneurs of the future. “In Egypt, more than 20 million students continue their education online using remote educational platforms during the lockdown period. […] All of this demonstrates the importance of network connectivity as a public service in an unprecedented way”, says Lu Libo.

Dr Hamadoun Touré points to the growing use of video conferences by ministers, as well as homegrown start-ups providing different solutions for farmers through their applications: “They believe that the solutions can only come from them, because they’re the ones who understand the problems.”

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