Africa Telecoms Infrastructure in 2014

A look back.  My review of African telecom infrastructure development in 2014.

Undersea Cables

Perhaps the most noticeable thing about undersea fibre-optic cable development around Africa was the soundless popping of project bubbles that failed to gain traction.   WASACE, BRICS, SAeX and the southern leg of the ACE cable were all touted at one time but it seems that the continent is approaching saturation in at least the number of undersea projects required to provide capacity.

A notable exception to this is the South Atlantic Cable System (SACS) which will connect Angola with Brazil creating both  important redundancy in global network infrastructure connecting Africa as well as providing lower latency routes to North American markets. The likelihood of SACS going live seems sure now although perhaps not as soon as might have been hoped (Q4 2016).

Two existing African undersea cables saw upgrade projects initiate in 2014.  SAT3 saw its design capacity more than double to 920 Gbps and the EASSy cable also announced a planned doubling of their design capacity from 4720 Gbps to more than 10 Tbps.  In North Africa,  new undersea capacity linking Tunisia and Italy was announced.

The African undersea fibre revolution which began in 2009 with the launch of the Seacom cable is now maturing and we are seeing the fruit of this in the development of terrestrial fibre infrastructure to take advantage of this huge latent capacity.

Terrestrial Fibre Backbones

The development of terrestrial fibre networks in Africa is perhaps the most significant and most under-appreciated change in African telecoms in the last five years.  In 2014 alone,  at least a dozen new fibre backbone projects made the news.  Interestingly most of the announcements came from countries that are far down the leaderboard in terms of telecom infrastructure development.  This is because most African countries have already had terrestrial fibre backbone initiatives underway for a few years now.  Indeed one recent estimate suggests that 44% of Africa’s population is now within reach of a fibre network.

Country KMDateReference
Gabon1075Oct 2014Gabon Accelerating Its Digital Development
Cameroon10000Dec 2014Cameroon: Camtel to extend fibre optic cable
Zimbabwe1850Dec 2014Zimbabwe To Invest $32m in Fibre Network
Somaliland12000Jan 2014Fibre Optic Project Shifts Gear In Somaliland
Senegal371Sep 2014Sonatel extends fibre network to Tambacounda, Kedougou
DRC34000Jul 2014DRC builds 34 000 km fibre optic cable network
South Sudan400Apr 2014South Sudan Plans Connectivity with EASSy Submarine Fiber Optic Cable
Kenya4200Dec 2014Liquid Telecom expands fibre infrastructure in Kenya
Cote D'Ivoire2000Dec 2014Ivory Coast builds 2 000 km fibre optic network
Ghana600Apr 2014Eastern Corridor Fibre Optic Broadband Infrastructure Project Commences
Congo1100Jun 2014Fiber optics soon commissioned in Republic of the Congo

 

Fibre To The Home (FTTH)

Also significant in 2014 was the announcement of Fibre To The Home (FTTH) projects in a number of countries.  FTTH is not new in Africa.  Kenya’s Jamii Telecom announced an FTTH service in Nairobi back in 2011.  However, 2014 is different in a couple of respects.

Most of the announcements in the list below are related in one way or another to Liquid Telecom.  Liquid operate the largest terrestrial fibre network in Africa with close to 20,000km of fibre networks.  The fact that they have aggressively pursuing FTTH suggests that the urban telecom landscape in Africa may be shifting even faster than expected.

The other significant news was the launch of the first grassroots FTTH initiatives in Africa.  Consumers’ Associations in the Johannesburg suburbs of Parkhurst and Parkview banded together together to take the quality and price of connectivity into their own hands.  While these are comparatively wealthy suburbs for South Africa and South Africa has comparatively well-developed infrastructure, it is a sign of an alternative possible future where telecom infrastructure becomes cheap enough for communities to determine their own solutions.  To quote William Gibson, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

CountryDateReference
ZambiaMay 2014Fibre roll-out for 7,000 Zambian households
RwandaSep 2014Liquid Telecom to invest Rwf24 billion in Rwanda
South AfricaAug 2014Consumers Break SA’s Home Fibre Logjam
KenyaNov 2014Liquid Telecom to launch FTTH services in Kenya, Rwanda
UgandaNov 2014Liquid Telecom to launch FTTH in Kenya, Uganda

 

LTE

2014 saw twelve new LTE networks launched across ten countries bringing the total number of LTE networks on the continent up to twenty-nine from a total of seventeen at the end of 2013.   With few exceptions these deployments were in urban areas providing high-speed access to the most lucrative telecom markets.

Early African LTE deployments tended to be in the 1800MHz band as a result of incumbents re-utilising their existing spectrum assignments.  This year 2.6GHz and 800MHz dominated the deployments.  Again, most of these deployments were incumbents recycling their previous WiMax and CDMA spectrum assignments respectively.

LTE networks present challenges to African regulators and operators alike.  Demand for spectrum now significantly exceeds current availability meaning that regulators need to implement equitable and just mechanisms for giving out spectrum licenses.  Nigeria stands out on the continent as the only country to have successfully implemented spectrum auctions.  However, it is an open question whether spectrum auctions are the most appropriate mechanism for poor countries where high auction payouts may ultimately raise costs for consumers.   Standing in contrast to Nigeria, Kenya recently handed out 800 Mhz spectrum for LTE to majority incumbent Safaricom in exchange for USD75M and a contract to develop a police communication network.  This approach may have both efficiencies and cost-savings over spectrum auctions but does little to promote a competitive market.

For Mobile Network Operators (MNOs), the challenge is choosing the most strategic LTE frequencies for deployment.  Lower frequencies such as 800MHz and below represent substantial cost-savings for network deployment, especially in rural areas but higher frequencies, such as the 2.3GHz and 2.6GHz bands offer more capacity for urban broadband deployments where demand for capacity is likely to be much higher.  MNOs also have to take into account what frequencies smartphone manufacturers are building into their handsets.  High-end smartphones like the iPhone and Samsung Galaxy and others support a variety of LTE frequencies but that contributes to the cost of the device.  Inexpensive smartphones which are critical for low-income markets are likely to be much more limited.  Some operators have done an end-run around this problem by focusing on data-only LTE network services  where low-cost LTE dongles can be distributed for much less than a smartphone.  The operators in the list below with TDD spectrum largely fall into this category.

CountryCompanyDateFrequencyBandMode
AlgeriaAlgerie Telecom MobilisMay 2014??TDD
Cote D'IvoireYouMeeApr 2014230040TDD
GhanaBlu TelecomsOct 2014260038TDD
GhanaSurfline CommunicationsAug 201426007FDD
KenyaSafaricomDec 20141800 / 8003 / 20FDD
LesothoVodacomOct 201480020FDD
MadagascarBluelineApr 2014230040TDD
RwandaOlleh Rwanda NetworksNov 201480020FDD
ZambiaMTN ZambiaJan 201426007FDD
ZambiaZamtel / Cell ZJan 201426007FDD
ZimbaweNetOneNov 201480020FDD
NigeriaBitfluxFeb 2014230040TDD
Sources: Wikipedia and 4G Americas

 

Unlicensed Spectrum (WiFi)

Perhaps the most notable thing about WiFi across the continent has been its general absence from the news.  While WiFi off-loading of mobile data traffic now approaching 80% in many parts of the world and WiFi is now embedded in everything from lightbulbs to refrigerators, nevermind smartphones and tablets, it somehow remains the poor cousin of connectivity in Africa.  One might argue that WiFi offloading in rich countries is enabled by extensive wireline infrastructure that simply doesn’t exist in most of of Africa.  Yet even this is changing with the development of extensive metro fibre networks in most African capitals.  Disappointingly commercial WiFi services are banned in some African countries, such as Zimbabwe and Namibia or attract licensing fees annually that exceed the cost of the equipment itself such as in Malawi.

There are some bright exceptions however.  Project Isiswe in South Africa has launched successful WiFi networks in Stellenbosch and Pretoria.  In Rwanda, the Smart Kigali program now offers WiFi in public spaces in Kigali.   Something similar was announced in Nakuru County in Kenya but it has yet to bear fruit.

Dynamic Spectrum

Last but not least, what of Television White Spaces spectrum or now more generically referred to as Dynamic Spectrum.   In Africa, Microsoft and their 4Afrika program stand way out in front as the leader in this space.   Not only are they supporting active pilots in Kenya, Tanzania, and Ghana but have new ones planned in both Namibia and Botswana.   Not only that but they have championed the establishment of the Dynamic Spectrum Alliance (DSA), an industry association with the mission of increasing dynamic access to unused radio frequencies.  Google have also been active in the development of the DSA and, more recently, Facebook has joined as well.

Somewhat frustratingly, there are still no countries in Africa that have introduced formal regulation on dynamic spectrum.  South Africa and Malawi are probably closest to this but at the currently pace it will likely be 2016 before we are likely to see published regulations.   Why are things moving so slowly?  There are some key contributing factors.  One, as yet there is no mass manufacturing of dynamic spectrum devices, which is essential to bringing costs down.  It is something of a Catch-22 as manufacturers are awaiting a strong signal from regulators to gear up manufacturing and regulators seem to be awaiting mass market production.  Two, the ITU, in spite of sanctioning dynamic spectrum at the World Radio Congress in 2012, have been spreading Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt about dynamic spectrum.  They are prone to asking questions like “What is the business model for dynamic spectrum?”  as if someone had asked that question about WiFi in its infancy.  Three, broadcasters who currently have rights to television spectrum and telecom incumbents who want more spectrum are reluctant to encourage the unknown impact that dynamic spectrum may have.

Interestingly, the most significant impact that dynamic spectrum in Africa has had in 2014, has been in the United States where evidence from trials in South Africa and Ghana have led the FCC to more progressive regulation of dynamic spectrum in the US.   Mediatek, the third largest manufacturer of WiFi chips in the world, have announced that they will bring a dynamic spectrum chipset to mass market by Q4 of 2015.  Hopefully that will move things along  a little faster.

Other

What else?  Google have been trialling the Loon Project in Southern Africa but there is no sense of when or if it is likely to see a commercial launch.    While technically it launched in Nov 2013, I am tempted to include Google’s Project Link metro fibre project in Kampala, Uganda because I am such a fan of it.  Trusted, third-party, Open Access metro fibre projects can be huge catalysts for both access and competition.  And then, in complete contrast, there are metro fibre projects like Johannesburg‘s.  Perhaps the less said about that the better.

In September, O3B launched four more satellites bringing their network up to eight satellites, then promptly took two offline due to flaws in the design of the original four.   This didn’t stop them from launching four more in December.   In spite of a long genesis, O3B now have the capacity to be a real contender for backbone access in remote places.

What Did I Miss?

I’ve done my best but it is impossible to be comprehensive.  Are there things you think I should have mentioned?   I feel like I could have said more about metro fibre projects in African cities but I haven’t been tracking them as closely as I should have been.  I’ve also missed out on the development of basic GSM infrastructure, especially in rural areas but that sort of deployment doesn’t seem to make the news and is consequently harder to track.  For more on African ICTs in 2014, over at oAfrica Tim Katlic has published an excellent country-by-country summary of ICT developments.


Made possible in part through support from the Network Startup Resource Center