This entry is part 3 of 9 in the series Annual Review

Welcome to the 3rd annual review of telecommunications infrastructure development in Africa.  A bit like my taxes this year, this review is coming a bit late but is still relevant, especially in the context of the previous reviews helping to frame the arc of change of the last three years.  The review contains links to over 120 news articles on telecom development in Africa in 2016.

Undersea Cables

There was more boom and bust (mostly boom really) in the undersea cable industry around Africa.

  • Of the LiquidSea cable announced in 2015, it was still in the news in March 2016 but nothing concrete appears to have happened.
  • In the same month, OmanTel announced the Gulf to Africa (G2A) consortium, consisting of Omantel, Ethio Telecom, Golis Telecom and Telesom.  G2A is planned to connect Oman to both Somalia and Ethiopia.  It will consist of a 1,500km undersea segment and a 1,500km terrestrial segment offering a capacity 20Tbps.  The initial announcement dated completion by Q4 2016 but it appears to still be a work in progress.
  • The ACE cable extension from Sao Tomé & Principe to South Africa announced in 2015 also still seems to be a work in progress.
  • Construction began in April 2016 on the South Atlantic Cable System (SACS) which promises to be the first direct undersea link between Africa and the Americas.
  • April also saw the announcement of the Africa-1 undersea cable, yet another consortium, made up of MTN, PCCW Global, Saudi Telecom Company (STC), Telecom Egypt (TE) and Telkom South Africa.  Africa-1 is planned to run 12,000km along the east coast of Africa towards Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and finally Pakistan.
  • Cameroon’s announcement in 2015, of the Cameroon-Brazil Cable System (CBCS) linking Cameroon and Brazil has changed names and become the South Atlantic Inter Link (SAIL) cable. This project seems to have solidified with a Construction and Maintenance Agreement having been signed in August 2016.
  • Mauritius also has plans for expanding undersea capacity through a partnership between Seacom and Indoi to build a new telecommunications cable system to connect Mauritius to Africa. An MOU was signed in Nov 2016 and the cable is slated for completion in late 2019.
  • The NCSCS cable announced in 2015 linking Nigeria and Cameroon went live in January of 2016
  • Globalcom announced plans for new landing stations for their GLO1 cable in Côte d’Ivoire, Gambia, and Senegal.
  • DAREAlmost unbelievably, another East Africa undersea cable was announced.  The Djibouti Africa Regional Express (DARE) cable is a 5,500km cable which will connect Tanzania, Kenya, Somalia, Somaliland, Yemen, and Djibouti.
  • The Africa Africa Europe (AAE-1) undersea cable completed its first phase of construction in October of 2016.
  • Last but not least, EulaLink cable, announced in 2015, is now the EllaLink cable and will connect  Brazil with Spain and Portugal, connecting up Cape Verde and the Canary Islands along the way.  This project still appears to be active although no formal announcements have been forthcoming.

Compared to the previous two years, this is a staggering amount of new, planned capacity.  It is hard to imagine demand that will grow to match this investment but with the rise of streaming media and video on demand services on the continent, it is not impossible.  One thing is certain, it is good news for the consumer.  More undersea capacity will continue to stimulate investment in terrestrial networks and create more competition.

Terrestrial Backbone Fibre

Investment in terrestrial fibre networks has also grown on the continent.  Last year I tracked 19 fibre project announcements referencing a total of 730 million dollars of investment in over 22,000km of fibre.  In 2016, those numbers increased to 26 announcements totalling 5.3 billion dollars of investment covering a proposed 60,000km of fibre.  You have to interpret those numbers with a grain of salt as fibre projects are sometimes re-announced after each phase of development and sometimes announcements do not always match reality.  The totals are derived from news announcements in 2016.

What we can interpret is that investment in terrestrial fibre infrastructure in African countries is still on the rise and shows no sign of slowing down.  As in previous years, the World Bank, African Development Bank, the Chinese feature heavily as investors.  Huawei seems to win a large proportion of the contracts to deploy fibre networks.  The significant exception to this is in West Africa where French firms seem to be having some success.  Liquid Telecom continues to expand across the continent, forming a joint venture in 2016 with the Botswana power utility.

Another trend in 2016 was the increased entry of power utilities into the broadband market.  Not just the Botswana power utility but utilities in Kenya and Uganda as well.  An interesting potentially large terrestrial fibre network was mooted in August of 2016 by the ministers of Algeria, Mali, Niger and Chad.  They discussed the possibility of building a Trans-Saharan fibre optic cable.

African Terrestrial Fibre Projects in 2016

CountryKilometresInvestment ($M)DateInvestmentContractor/Operator
Cote D’Ivoire5,013170.012-10-2016Bouygues Telecom,Sagemcom, Cegelec
West Africa5,00022-07-2016Vivendi
Kenya4,200200.017-03-2016Liquid Telecom
Algeria28-03-2016African Development Bank
Cameroon9164200.016-05-2016African Development Bank
Niger2,27599.522-12-2015Exim BankChina International Telecommunication Construction Corporation
Burkina Faso3078.418-10-2016World Bank
Kenya120.511-08-2016Liquid TelecomLiquid Telecom
Zimbabwe10,60016-09-2016Liquid TelecomLiquid Telecom
Gabon1,075109.013-12-2016World BankChina Communication Services International
Burkina Faso5,400170.016-04-2016HuaweiHuawei

Metro Fibre, Fibre To The Home (FTTH), and Video on Demand (VoD)

Somewhat surprisingly, I did not see a single announcement in 2016 of a new metropolitan fibre optic network.  This is probably because a lot of metro fibre build out is being done by network operators in course of their network investments.  Still I expected to see more dedicated Open Access metropolitan fibre networks.  On the other hand, there were plenty of FTTH announcements with South Africa and Kenya leading the way.

African FTTH Announcements in 2016

Liquid Telecom reaches 3,933 Nairobi homes on fibre Internet - Corporate NewsKenya2016-12-14
Kenya Power to offer FTTH connections by year-endKenya2016-12-01
Gabon Telecom unveils FTTH, FTTB connectivity in LibrevilleGabon2016-07-21
Zambia: Iwayafrica Launches Fibre Services in ZambiaZambia2016-06-28
Vodacom SA extends FTTH networkSouth Africa2016-06-28
Telkom pumps R757m into FTTH South Africa2016-06-07
Vumatel earmarks R3bn for FTTH South Africa2016-04-25
Safaricom, Kenya Power team up for FTTH pilotKenya2016-04-08
12,000 Kenyan homes will benefit from Kenya Power and Safaricom’s internet connectivity projectKenya2016-04-08
Cell C launches trial FTTH serviceSouth Africa2016-02-24
Liquid Telecom goes after ZukuKenya2016-02-05
Somcable partners Alepo, Airspan for Somaliland LTE launchSomaliland2016-01-07
CEC Liquid Telecom Zambia announces US$16m investment Zambia2016-01-06

Much of the FTTH investment is intended to serve the growing Video on Demand market.  The biggest news in 2016 was the launch in January of Netflix across the continent.  The arrival of Netflix has meant that African streaming and VoD services now have to offer a clear value-add whether in differentiated content or price or quality of service.  Nigeria’s iROKOtv followed up the Netflix announcement only a few weeks later with news that they had secured 19 million dollars in funding to expand their services.  Liquid Telecom launch VoD services in Zambia and Asian streaming media giant iFlix announced plans to expand into Africa.  There is a sense of a land rush to gain pole position in offering OTT services on the continent but many of these companies may be challenged to grow fast enough given the twin challenges of availability of broadband and ability to pay.

Licensed Spectrum

LTE networks continue to expand across the continent with roughly the same number of new network announcements as last year as well as announcements of LTE network expansions.  1800MHz and 800MHz continues to be the dominant choice for LTE networks: 1800MHz because this is spectrum that most mobile network operators already have a license for so they don’t have to wait for new spectrum to be released by the operator; and, 800MHz because this spectrum is either being re-purposed by former CDMA operators with licenses in this spectrum or because the spectrum was empty to begin with.  The one big change that can be see this year is the increasing diversity of frequencies that are being used to deliver LTE services.  2016 saw launches in no less than eight different LTE bands.  This becomes a challenge for smartphone manufacturers.  Expensive, high-end smartphones are designed to support a wide range of LTE frequencies but for inexpensive smartphones that sell at $50 or less, the range of support is much smaller.  This may amount to a kind of network lock-in for the poor who may not able to afford a new phone in order to switch networks.

LTE-Advanced (LTE-A) networks saw their first deployments at scale in South Africa and Gabon offering speeds two to three times faster than regular LTE networks.

African LTE Network Launches & Expansions in 2016

GhanaBusy InternetLaunch2016-01-21LTE230040TDD
South AfricaCellCExpansion2016-04-26LTE-A21001FDD

Another feature of 2016 is that, for better or worse, spectrum auctions seem to be taking hold on the continent as the dominant means of assigning high-demand spectrum frequencies.  I have written more extensively about recent spectrum auctions in Africa so won’t go into detail here.  It is enough to say that I am far from convinced that spectrum auctions are a great idea in general but especially in Africa.  They are difficult to organise effectively and expensive to run both in time and money and often don’t turn out the way they are planned.  Certainly Ghana’s experience with 800MHz spectrum in 2016 in which MTN was the only successful bidder cannot be considered a success.  Kenya managed to assign 800MHz spectrum without an auction.  South Africa continues to be mired in a three-way battle between the telecommunications ministry, the regulator and the operators with no end in sight.  Finally, Egypt appears to have effectively forced all the operators to buy spectrum at an egregious price.  Extracting too much value from spectrum licenses may end up killing the golden telecom goose.

African Spectrum Auction News in 2016

Egypt22 Oct 2016Vodafone loses most after redistribution of 4G frequencies among companies.
Egypt26 Sep 2016Egypt considers international 4G auction after telcos reject licence terms.
Egypt16 Oct 2016Egypt completes long-Delayed 4G mobile license deals.
Ghana18 Mar 2016Ghana looks to spectrum sales to fund digital migration.
Kenya27 Mar 2016Major telcos to share 4G frequencies with smaller firms.
Kenya26 Jun 2016Top three mobile operators to pay Sh2.5bn each for 4G licence.
Kenya11 Aug 2016Safaricom to slap State with Sh9bn bill for security network.
Nigeria21 Apr 2016Bitflux Begins Commercial Rollout of 2.3GHz Services.
Nigeria20 Oct 2016The Untold Story of NCC’s 2.6GHz Spectrum Auction.
Senegal19 Aug 2016Sénégal : Les détails de la nouvelle convention de concession d’Orange sur Sonatel dévoilés.
Senegal19 Jan 2016Sénégal : l’appel à candidature pour la 4G est ouvert à de nouveaux opérateurs.
South Africa9 Oct 2016ICT white paper under fire.
South Africa6 Sept 2016Spectrum meltdown.

Unlicensed and Dynamic Spectrum

Perhaps the most profound impact of the spread of terrestrial fibre on the continent is the manner in which it is enabling alternative last mile access in an environment where the last mile has been controlled by those with access to licensed spectrum.  Unlicensed (WiFi) and dynamic spectrum (also known as television white spaces spectrum) are now coming into their own as terrestrial fibre networks offer the enabling backhaul infrastructure.

Of the two, dynamic spectrum has moved more slowly in 2015 as we wait for manufacturers to scale up manufacturing of dynamic spectrum chipsets.  There is an unfortunate Catch-22 where communication regulators are waiting for signs of large-scale manufacturing to move forward with dynamic spectrum regulation and manufacturers are waiting for clear signals from regulators before scaling up manufacturing.  I had hopes that South Africa or Malawi might have formalised dynamic spectrum regulation in 2015 but it seems that this will likely happen in 2016.

Progress in the form of new dynamic spectrum pilots took place in Mozambique where a new startup has been given permission to deploy TVWS infrastructure and Morocco where a pilot was launched to connect schools in rural areas.

African WiFi & Dynamic Spectrum News in 2016

ZambiaWiFi28 Jul 2016Zambia : Lusaka City Council signs MOU for project to provide Free Wifi in Lusaka
KenyaWiFi30 Nov 2016Poa Internet and Liquid Telecom brings free solar internet to Kibera
TogoWiFi03 Nov 2016Après Lomé, Togo Telecom lance le Wifi public à Kpalimé
TanzaniaWiFi03 Oct 2016Dar residents to enjoy free Wi-Fi in public, recreational areas
TanzaniaWiFi06 Oct 2016Tanzanie : Dar es Salaam arrosée en Internet Wi-Fi gratuit, comme Kampala en Ouganda
KenyaWiFi05 Nov 2016Liquid Telecom's BilaWaya Wi-Fi project wins global telecoms award
BotswanaWiFi27 Sep 2016
Botswana: Bofinet Avails Wi-Fi At Gaborone, Francistown Stadia
KenyaWiFi03 Jul 2016Government of Kenya to rollout free internet across the counties
KenyaWiFi16 Sep 2016Kenya’s low cost data operator poa! Internet moves from soft launch in Kibera to hard launch and will roll out nationally and in East Africa
UgandaWiFi12 Dec 2015RokeSpot Wi-Fi: First impressions with Google's and Roke Telkom's Kampala Wi-Fi network
KenyaWiFi2 Sep 2016After Nakuru, Liquid Telecom seeks to connect nine more Counties to free Wi-Fi
South AfricaWiFi22 Aug 2016South Africa: Joburg Promises Free Wi-Fi for 'All Residents'
SenegalWiFi04 Aug 2016Sénégal: Sonatel teste le Wi-Fi public gratuit à Rufisque, aux Parcelles Assainies et à Sacré-Cœur/Mermoz
RwandaWiFi13 Jul 2016Rwanda: la société Vanu Inc veut déployer le Wi-fi à travers les zones rurales
ZimbabweWiFi18 Jul 2016Telone Targets 600 Wi-Fi Hotspots By 2018
ZimbabweWiFi19 Jul 2016NetOne extends broadband services introduces a public WiFi option
South AfricaWiFi22 Jun 2016WiFi comes to Gauteng townships
South AfricaWiFi13 Jun 2016Cape Town MyCiTi buses to get free Wi-Fi
KenyaWiFi30 May 2016Kenya: Libraries to offer free Internet to public
MawinguWiFi15 Apr 2016Mawingu Network’s Tim Nderitu rolls out low-cost, regional Wi-Fi hot-spots, adding new Counties – “Nothing holding back further expansion”
ZimbabweWiFi31 Jan 2016TelOne launches public WiFi promo, offers 1GB for $1
South AfricaDynamic Spectrum11 Jul 2016CSIR's dynamic spectrum tool gets UK certification
MalawiDynamic Spectrum1 Nov 2016Rural Malawians About to Go Online
GhanaDynamic Spectrum19 Aug 2016NCA Holds Workshop On TV White Space Spectrum Regulatory Framework


What stands out in 2016 is the ongoing investment in fibre optic infrastructure both undersea and terrestrial.  Clearly investors envisage a massive uptick in broadband demand on the continent, which is likely to be driven by the uptake of streaming media services.  There is a kind of scramble for Africa feeling about  fibre infrastructure and streaming media where companies are rushing to stake their claims.  But this scramble is more diverse with both international and African investors looking to achieve first mover advantage in markets across the continent.  Fibre is also changing how we think about spectrum.  It has the potential to democratise the last mile by allowing multiple last mile service providers using various access technologies to compete for customers.  This seems like a very good thing but spectrum regulation will have to catch up to these changes in order for that to be fully realised.

LTE networks continue to grow but are still generally limited to urban areas where both people and wealth are concentrated.  The high spectrum fees we are seeing for new spectrum through spectrum auctions or otherwise are unlikely to encourage operators to deploy networks into rural areas where delivering a return on investment is likely to be slow.

Finally, 2016 also seems to be the year that WiFi really came into its own as a legitimate access technology on the continent.  Demand for broadband, the spread of fibre, and the proliferation of WiFi-enabled devices from smartphones to tablets have all contributed to this.  Back in 2012, I lamented the lack of attention that WiFi received, especially from the UN Broadband Commission.  That’s all changed now.

This work would not have been possible without the support of the Network Startup Resource Center


Series Navigation<< Africa Telecoms Infrastructure in 2015Africa Telecoms Infrastructure in 2017 >>

Posted by Steve Song

@stevesong local telco policy activist. social entrepreneur. founder of @villagetelco #africa #telecoms #opensource #privacy #wireless #spectrum #data