By Jennigay Coetzer – Business Day – 12 November 2009

Africa is the last continent to be reached with affordable high-speed broadband connectivity and has a lot of catching up to do to be on a par with developed markets. It has to do this in order to be globally competitive and this will require widespread fibre infrastructure, which will take at least five years to build.

“In Finland, citizens are guaranteed broadband connectivity speeds of 1 megabit per second by the government,” says Noel Kirkaldy, director of mobile broadband for Middle East, Africa and Pakistan at Motorola. Various undersea cables are under construction that will link parts of Africa to Europe, the US, Asia and the rest of the world, but extending this connectivity inland to reach consumers and businesses is a major challenge.

In the past, incumbent operators had the monopoly over international and national fixed line telecommunications infrastructure, and deregulation in this area is still patchy across Africa. South Africa is ahead of other parts of the continent in terms of liberalising fixed services because it now has two fixed line operators.

Lack of fixed line infrastructure in Africa has been the catalyst for huge growth in mobile communication. The mobile operators have built their own fixed line transmission networks in Africa because they cannot rely on the incumbent operators to provide them with infrastructure or they can do it a lot cheaper themselves.

They have done this with high capacity fibre optics, and microwave technology that provides speeds up to 300 megabits per second. “In the main business hubs they are laying fibre because they know that with the undersea cables coming in they will be able to resell any excess capacity to other operators,” says Kirkaldy.

A new breed of dark fibre operators are also digging up roads and laying ducting and fibre cable and selling capacity to operators and service providers. The utilities are also stringing fibre cable across their power lines or laying it along their railway tracks.

“They will be able to resell the capacity to others very competitively,” he says. In African markets outside of SA the furthest ahead with terrestrial infrastructure are Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania on the East coast and Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Gabon on the west coast.

This progress will extend along the coast to other countries that have easier access to the undersea cables than those further inland. The toughest spots to reach are countries that are landlocked geographically, and economically, and in some cases hampered by political issues.

These include central African countries like Sudan, DRC, Zimbabwe and Zambia. “Some of these countries are 1000 kilometres from the undersea cable landing points and have to cross several boarders to reach them,” says Kirkaldy.

Right now, most countries in Africa are heavily reliant on mobile communication due to the lack of copper wire infrastructure and most of the mobile operators have launched or are about to launch 3G/HSDPA data services.

“Nigeria has a population of 150 million and has less than five million fixed lines,” he says. In some countries 3G/HSDPA is the only form of data communication, with some using it to run their businesses. But 3G/HSDPA was not designed for mainstream data connectivity and all this data traffic is putting a strain on the networks.

“This is why the operators need to build new networks that support WiMAX and the next generation mobile data technology Long Term Evolution (LTE),” says Kirkaldy. He says most countries in sub-Saharan Africa are reaching economic saturation point for mobile voice communication.

But broadband data communication services less than 2% of the population, on average, across the region. In Uganda, Angola, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda the regulators have issued WiMAX spectrum licenses and a total of 100 operators are building WiMAX networks in Middle East and Africa.

There are also more than 50 CDMA wireless networks in Africa, these having been built by operators that came into the market to take up the slack when the mobile operators first started rolling out their networks. “CDMA is a more efficient, cheaper technology for handling voice,” says Kirkaldy.

Satellite was traditionally the main form of communication in the rest of Africa, and will continue to play an important role until the more modern infrastructure has been rolled out throughout the continent. Even then, it will continue to be the best distribution medium for broadcast and provide an alternative medium for voice and data communication.

“There is a huge glamour for satellite communication for the 2010 World Cup,” says Kirkaldy.

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