The next steps in bringing broadband to Africa

10 July 2023

Broadband utilisation rates are on the rise across Africa, affording a significant positive impact on standards of living and nationwide economies. But how can rollouts be accelerated, and are MNOs doing enough? Amy Saunders asked the experts

Approximately 43% of Africa’s current population of around 1.4 billion people have access to the internet. While sub-Saharan Africa has shown the highest growth rate in internet penetration over the past couple of years, greater investment must be made in connecting the unconnected.

“Broadband is expanding very fast in Africa, thanks to the deployment of multiple technology networks in almost all countries,” says Jocelyn Karakula, CTIO, Orange Middle East & Africa. “In Africa, the expansion of broadband typically goes together with that of mobile technology. The massive deployment of 4G over the past few years has enabled a real boost for broadband services. 5G will reinforce this capability to offer very high-speed services, specifically in dense areas.”

However, “while increasing internet access and related infrastructure can have a profound impact across the continent, Africa still remains far behind the rest of the world in terms of fibre network and broadband connectivity, spectrum, and data centre processing resources,” says Angélo Gama, CEO of Angola Cables.
Indeed, there are several factors limiting wider availability of broadband in Africa today, identified by Gama and Karakula:

Lack of infrastructure: Many parts of the continent lack the necessary physical infrastructure, such as fibre optic cables and cell towers.

Limited investment: Limited investments are being made in broadband infrastructure - especially ‘last mile’ network connectivity. While there have been considerable investments by hyperscalers and others into increasing international bandwidth through new cables, too few investments are being made into localised networks.

Rising costs: Broadband infrastructure development and deployment can be expensive, especially in remote or rural areas. The costs are often carried over to the consumer. In Africa, some of the prices for internet connectivity make it unaffordable for many people or businesses, especially in areas with low population density.
Poor power supply: Loadshedding has reached alarming proportions which is having a negative effect on business and on consumers. The long periods of loadshedding are also impacting the ability of MNOs to keep their cell towers operational and the networks connected.

“Electricity, especially in South Africa; or rather, the lack thereof, is stopping wireless rollouts in its tracks,” states Danny Ben-Simhon, regional sales director, ME & Africa, Siklu. “It becomes difficult to utilise street light furniture or any other site acquisition, and make sure you’ve got power available always, especially during loadshedding – sometimes up to a total of 10-12 hours a day. On top of this, theft of the batteries, amongst other things, is hindering this further.”

Regulatory barriers: Some African countries have regulatory barriers that make it difficult for private companies to invest in broadband infrastructure. This can include strict licensing requirements or restrictions on foreign ownership.

Spectrum allocation and costs: Gaining access to sufficient radio spectrum, in the appropriate bands, and at the right cost, is proving challenging. In many countries, access to affordable spectrum remains a problem, bringing complexity in addressing both users and usage growth, especially in dense areas.

Device costs: The cost of devices is still too high on the continent, leading, in most countries, to a penetration of 4G smartphones below 50%. Similarly, the affordability of 5G devices for fixed and mobile users represents a challenge.

“Africa is enormous and therefore the prime factor limiting broadband is the cost of backhaul being a function of distance from the core network PoPs,” adds Justin Farnell, business development manager, FibrePoynt. “There is a significant national backhaul limitation, especially outside of the metros. Agility in the regulatory environment will play a huge role in removing barriers to entry for new innovative entrants to offer competition in a market where only few companies are offering backhaul services.”

Balancing the books
Ensuring continent-wide broadband availability is no mean feat, especially given the low spending power typical of some of the more remote and rural populations.

Orange Middle East & Africa has made digital and financial inclusion a key priority - “for rural areas, this means adapting our models and our network configurations to the specificities of each country, partner with players who are very familiar with local ecosystems, and benefit from the latest progress in technology (low-power equipment, pure solar power generation, etc.),” explains Karakula. “On top of this, internet and broadband adoption will be facilitated with an adapted support to local populations, to help them benefit from these new services, adapted to their expectations.”

FibrePoynt, meanwhile, is exploring the use of pre-existing networks to reach a wider audience throughout the rural African regions. “One key (fixed wireless) strategy is to unlock the latent capacity of many of the government owned networks across Africa,” outlines Farnell. Tanzania has spent hundreds of millions of dollars rolling out a national fibre network that is chronically underutilised, due to the lack of a cost-effective last mile solution. “FibrePoynt see a major opportunity here in rural areas where the residential household density is high. Likewise in South Africa, Sentech is looking to leverage the national network of Broadband Infraco and bring affordable connectivity to the rural areas of the country.”

Indeed, there are several strategies which are expected to help increase connectivity in less profitable regions of Africa. Service providers can partner with governments or NGOs to secure funding and support for broadband infrastructure development in remote and rural regions, while PPPs can help service providers to share the cost and risk of deploying infrastructure in areas with low population density.

“Another approach is to work with local communities to establish community networks,” says Gama. “This involves setting up small-scale infrastructure, such as wireless hotspots or mesh networks, that can provide connectivity to the local community. These networks can be more cost-effective and sustainable than traditional network infrastructure, and they can be managed and maintained by residents.”

Service providers can also explore innovative business models to make broadband more affordable and accessible to users in remote and rural areas. This can include pay-as-you-go models, or shared infrastructure models, where multiple service providers share the same network infrastructure, explains Gama.
Moreover, as well as utilising standard mobile spectrum, “there are a number of specialised wireless providers that are commercialising TV white space spectrum, to deliver high speed connectivity into remote areas,” adds Farnell.

“A combination of technologies, and a combined effort, especially with efforts and involvement from local and overseas governments in terms of investment are required to make a real change,” concludes Ben-Simhon.

Fibre vs satellite
Both fibre and satellite technology have a role to play in delivering broadband to the African continent, although each technology has its own advantages and limitations.

“In Africa, we can expect to see both fibre and satellite technology being used to improve internet penetration across the continent,” says Gama. “Fibre will be the preferred option for densely populated areas, while satellite technology will provide connectivity to remote or hard-to-reach areas.”

There are two purposes to fibre, asserts Karakula: backhauling of mobile sites, which becomes a ‘must-have’ in dense areas, covered with 4G and soon 5G technologies; and fibre-to-the home/office, which provides the very high broadband (VHBB) experience (large bandwidth, low latency) for customers and enterprises.

Fibre will play a big role in metro areas, “even in rural areas, if you can get the community to buy into the concept, and involve them as well,” asserts Ben-Simhon.

“Otherwise, the cables and other infrastructure will just be vandalised and/or stolen, whilst thieves are looking for copper. You need the community to protect the infrastructure, by making them part of the roll-out, as salespeople, local community reps, and skills transfer.”

Farnell agrees that fibre is having a massive impact on delivering broadband in Africa’s cities and towns. “Trenching over long distances is uneconomic, but the introduction of aerial fibre in urban areas has significantly cut deployment costs,” he explains. “Wireless solution providers are now taking the fixed fibre capacity from a shopping centre on main street, and connecting lower income surrounding neighbourhoods, with high gain directional WiFi antennas to provide coverage in the last mile.

Uncapped home router offerings of R200 per month are now possible, addressing a significant segment of the residential market that would otherwise not be feasible to cover with fibre.”

Satellite has had limited applications for delivering internet services in Africa to date, being up to 100 times more expensive than fibre. However, with the emerging low Earth orbit (LEO) constellations, the usage of satellite could evolve drastically.

“Depending on the cost of the technology and its operational cost, this new generation of satellites should be used to address multiple models (mobile backhauling, WiFi spots, direct to the home/office) and expand broadband coverage in Africa,” says Karakula.

Ben-Simhon, meanwhile, says that LEO satellites will play a major role for smaller areas that are far away from major metros or the nearest fibre PoP, where it is not worth deploying long distance backhaul into.

Gama believes that Starlink remains ‘hugely unaffordable’ for most people in Africa. “Starlink has already connected several African countries, including Mozambique, Rwanda, and Mauritius, with 19 more African countries scheduled for 2023 and 2024,” he says. “However, South Africa, the continent’s largest internet-consuming nation, is not one of them. This is a result of South Africa’s current prohibitive procurement policies which dictates that locals should have a majority shareholding in companies.”

Farnell, however, says that “the Starlink service at $110 a month, whilst still out of the reach of most African consumers, should be a game changer. African WISPs are now rapidly deploying and reselling these 100Mbps links across Nigeria, Rwanda, and most recently Zambia.”

The role of MNOs
Given the costs involved in fibre and satellite coverage, are MNOs key to driving broadband availability? The jury is divided…

Mobile networks will remain the main factor for broadband expansion in Africa, asserts Karakula. “5G will not only offer broadband, but also a full set of advanced services. As such, MNOs are key for driving this broadband challenge. At the same time, fibre is already a real factor of acceleration in some specific areas (such as places with high density), and satellite will complement this expansion even more.”

MNOs will continue to lead the expansion of broadband across Africa given their network footprint and marketing reach, says Farnell. “Whilst fixed wireless LTE/WiFi routers are the preferred delivery method in homes and small businesses, the smartphone is, and will remain the connectivity device of choice, for most people in Africa.”
Indeed, Huawei projects that central and southern Africa will see the fastest growth of smartphones in the world this decade; “MNOs are ideally positioned to bundle compelling fixed mobile broadband packages, boosted by the roll out of 5G and a plethora of fintech applications to drive digital adoption,” asserts Farnell.

“MNOs are playing an increasing role as they expand their own networks, which in turn assists in providing more connectivity to more citizens,” says Gama. “With this being said, MNOs will only make investments where they are guaranteed to make a return or provide a benefit to their existing networks. It is more a case of business economics and costs rather than just increasing capacity in areas that are sparsely populated in parts of Africa.”

Ben-Simhon, however, believes that MNOs could stand to do more: “I think MNOs are key in the sense of pushing the latest technology, but it is not to say that they will, or will for everyone, or even will past what is a mere marketing campaign,” he explains. “They are in a way, ‘trying,’ but more trying to look good with so-called dropped data prices and community projects. They are not really interested in the lower LSM areas, as far as I know. They are expanding, ever so slowly, and even moving into 5GHz for home internet, but it is still too costly for most households to afford.”

Do you have boots on the ground in Africa? Are MNOs doing enough to bridge the digital divide and bring 5G to the masses? Get in touch today to share your experiences…