The recent article in The Engineer ‘is Fiber to the Home (FTTH) in Africa just for the elite?’ – got me thinking of the progression I have seen in Africa since 2006 and my experience of internet accessibility in the continent. I also looked at the advantages that high speed, widely available (and in this I mean price as well as physical availability), internet connections will bring to Africa.
The benefits of FTTH to everyone
Firstly, it is worth looking at the benefits. Obviously faster broadband enables people to receive services such as IPTV, widening their entertainment choices, while also allowing them to download data and information faster than before. However it goes further, empowering them. It makes it easier to work from home and communicate nationally and internationally using voice and video at no extra cost through VoIP services such as Skype, enabling people to start and expand their own businesses. They can sign up for content rich educational courses, particularly those including video lectures and real-time tutorials, learning vital skills to improve their lives. And government services, from healthcare to registering for benefits, can be applied for and accessed online, reducing the bureaucracy and increasing efficiency for both citizens and civil servants.
My experience of the pace of change
Back in 2006 I set up an office in South Africa to offer local support and training for a UK tech company. Our IT systems needed a reliable internet connection from the UK to Johannesburg. I thought this would be easy but I was wrong. First of all the only supplier who could provide me with a fixed line internet connection was Telkom (wireless was not good enough for my needs) so I ordered a 1mb asymmetric connection. Then it took four months for the line to be installed and this cost me the Rand equivalent of £2,000. Rental was then an eye-watering £500 per month. I got to understand why the demand for 3G wireless internet was so high. MTN and the other mobile operators did a great job filling the gap.
Roll on a few years to 2009, and I found myself working for Vodafone Ghana where one of the projects I was involved with was rolling out a national chain of high speed internet cafes. Vodafone internet cafes at the time were the fastest on the continent as the advertising proudly boasted.
Now five years on, I am with m2fx, rolling out FTTH last mile solutions. Another jump has occurred. Multiple subsea cables have increased the continents bandwidth numerous times.
There is now plenty of capacity coming into Africa. There are mixed results so far with accessibility to this huge bandwidth depending on where you are. Innovators such as Liquid Telecom with their Central Africa Fibre Project and Google Fiber with their Project Link program in Uganda are helping to bring this capacity from the coast to the whole of the continent. This will no doubt continue but not uniformly across every country and area.
What are the barriers to fiber rollouts?The first challenge is to get the fiber to the general vicinity. The African Terrestrial Fibre Optic Cable Mapping Project or AfTerFibre has started to map terrestrial fiber optic cable projects in Africa if you wish to see the scale of progress.
The next challenge is to get access to an affordable level. When these high speeds first hit a country it is natural for the early roll outs to be a luxury elite item but then as the installed base grows costs fall and FTTH becomes more available. Currently it is possible to get a 100 mb connection in Zimbabwe but at an elite cost of $149/mth. Move onto Kenya and the same service costs $49/mth. Zimbabwe is at the elite pricing level whereas in Kenya is becoming commoditised. The sub $50/mth price point enables schools and internet cafes to offer this high speed service to the wider population. As more of Africa moves to FTTH this price point will become more available and will reduce further.
So is FTTH in Africa only for the elite? At the moment it appears so, but in the medium term the benefits will be enjoyed by a rapidly increasing proportion of the continent as governments fund connectivity to schools and libraries to enable competitive advantage for their countries. Commercial organisations will continue to increase the rate of roll out as there is plenty of unfulfilled demand that will be met as the deployment costs decrease.
So will every home have fiber connectivity? The short answer is no. Will the majority of the population have access to a high speed connection for an economically affordable rate? – yes. Will users push to adopt high speed connectivity? I believe they will. The highly social population of Africa have already proven their desire to embrace technologies that improve their communication and commercial organisations have worked out how to service this demand at a price point that can still be economically viable. You need to look no further than the growth of mobile phone usage across the continent.
In the second part of this blog series I will look at how operators are driving down the cost of FTTH.
Picture 1 by: World Bank Photo Collection
Picture 2 from: http://manypossibilities.net/african-undersea-cables/