Welcome to the 7th annual review of telecommunications infrastructure development in Africa. Thanks to COVID-19, 2020 has been a year that no one on the planet will forget. It is also a year in which we came face-to-face with the critical role that telecommunications plays in enabling our economies to function, our students to learn, and many other aspects of life to go on while maintaining standards for staying safe and healthy. Given constraints of the pandemic, one might have expected fewer developments in the African telecom sector but if news is anything to go by the year has been as busy as those before. The following is my analysis of 2020 as well as links to over 275 articles covering a range of African telecom infrastructure development issues.
Undersea cable initiatives got bigger and smaller in 2020. Bigger with the ongoing development of the two massive cables, Equiano and 2Africa spearheaded by Google and Facebook respectively. Each cable represents as much or more capacity than has been deployed in all the existing African undersea cables to date. It is difficult to predict how this is going to re-shape the undersea cable market but there seems little doubt that we are entering a new phase of undersea cable ownership and that is bound to have tectonic impacts on African markets.
The pandemic doesn’t seem to have inhibited investments in terrestrial fibre networks. There are three noticeable trends in this year. The first is increasing regionalisation and cross-border fibre. Large operators like Orange with their Djoliba regional fibre network in West Africa are recognising the benefits of infrastructure that can span multiple markets. They are playing catch-up though with the likes of Liquid Telecom in Eastern and Southern Africa.
The second trend of note is the increasing focus on dig-once policies that leverage infrastructure investments in road, rail, and other infrastructure to deploy fibre at the same time, notably in northern Kenya and Nigeria.
Lastly, there is a growingfrustration with the under utilisation of national fibre backbones. Fibre networks are the deep water ports of network infrastructure yet they are still treated as commodities to maximise return on rather than infrastructure which can boost entire economies.
Savvy ISPs continue to invest in FTTH services. Fibre costs more to deploy but can deliver high-speed access without the expense and politics of acquiring LTE/5G spectrum. Which is not to say that rights of way / wayleaves are not a challenge but they are generally not as difficult a barrier to overcome. MNOs have not been standing still however and have begun to invest in their own FTTH networks and services.
The pandemic presented a particular challenge to the release of spectrum to operators. While most spectrum auctions around the world were delayed in 2020, a number of African regulators, including Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe acted quickly to release spectrum to operators to help them cope with increased demand for capacity on their networks. Where operators had existing spectrum, this helped to expand capacity on existing networks but typically did not result in new infrastructure being built, partly due to the uncertainty related to the permanence of the spectrum making infrastructure investment risky but also the physical challenges of construction logistics during the pandemic.
Some operators like Airtel in Nigeria received more formal assignments of spectrum but that was more the exception than the rule. South Africa’s planned massive auction of spectrum which was to be held in 2020 was delayed until March 2021. After ten years of waiting, there is a lot of pent up expectation around it.
Arguably the most successful access technology deployed to build new access infrastructure during the pandemic was WiFi. Cheap and not subject to complex and expensive licensing process, WiFi projects to extend affordable access proliferated.
TVWS technology also looks like it is finally going to reach critical mass on the continent with Kenya and Nigeria announcing draft regulations for TVWS use and South Africa granting access to TVWS spectrum as part of their COVID-19 response.
Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites dominated the news in 2020 with OneWeb managing to go bankrupt and exit bankruptcy before the year was out. Elon Musk’s Starlink launched hundreds of satellites and began to offer ‘beta’ service in the United States and Canada. None of this is especially relevant to African countries so far and the jury is out as to whether LEO satellites are a desirable or sustainable solution to the challenge of affordable access for all. Meanwhile, everyone else from Jeff Bezos to the European Union, China, and Russia have announced their intention to build a LEO constellation.
Notable for me but not fitting in any particular category has been the slow but steady growth of Africa Mobile Networks who have made a business out of designing mobile network in places that are not economically viable for the big operators.
While the pandemic has been catastrophic in so many ways, the telecommunications sector, thanks to its critical role in providing access to services during lockdowns, has been another busy year. 2020 has taught us just how important the internet is as modern infrastructure.
I very much hope that if we have learned anything from this last year, it is that everyone needs affordable access to internet and that inclusion is the most important internet access metric of all.