Africa bustles with innovative ideas to get its citizens connected

With some 80 per cent of the population in Africa still not connected to the Internet, the thorny problem of how to get citizens online in some of the most challenging parts of the world was a key topic at the AfricaCom conference in Cape Town last week.

Mobile access is regarded as the obvious solution in many African markets, with fixed networks often limited or non-existent. For companies such as Orange, the focus is still very much on rolling out 3G networks in many of its 20 markets in Africa and the Middle East, although the operator is also deploying LTE networks this year in markets including Senegal, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ivory Coast, Botswana, and Mauritius.

Elsewhere in Africa, a new type of LTE provider is emerging with no legacy 2G or 3G networks to worry about: such operators so far include Smile, Surfline Communications, and Cameroon-based Yoomee.

Surfline was established in Ghana with the sole purpose of launching a data-only LTE network. Smile is a former WiMAX company that has so far launched LTE services in Tanzania, Uganda, and Nigeria and plans to launch services soon in the DRC.

What these companies are also finding is that the latent demand for data surpasses their wildest expectations: Surfline initially expected average usage to be around 6 GB a month, but found usage was in fact around 18 GB a month. In fact once operators get consumers onto their LTE networks, it is becoming apparent that networks based on European models would fall over almost as soon as they are switched on because of sheer demand. "Demand is very different here," said Eran Yoran, marketing director of Gilat Satcom.

In some of the more developed markets such as South Africa, Telkom, MTN and Vodacom are all planning to deal with their data backhaul requirements with fibre where they can; indeed MTN South Africa CEO Ahmad Farroukh said the operator's focus is now on next-generation networks for mobile and fixed access, with LTE and fibre networks in the process of being rolled out across the country.

Elsewhere, fibre is not going to be a viable solution for backhaul and other innovative solutions such as satellite backhaul for mobile data will be required.

The different demands on operators and equipment providers in Africa are certainly driving them to come up with new ways to solve myriad challenges that are unique to this part of the world.

Marc Rennard, EVP for Africa, the Middle East and Asia at Orange, said he believes Africa is a highly innovative market that has enabled Orange to develop some unusual and interesting services. Such services include 'Emergency Credit', which effectively lends a user credit when they are down to zero and recoups the money when they next top up. According to Rennard, the latter service generates 6 per cent of Orange's revenue in the region.

At the same time, Africa has some regulatory issues to overcome, such as the high taxation that is applied by some governments to services and smartphones.

But make no mistake; while many countries are still lagging behind global averages in terms of connectivity, the will is there to catch up and take part in a more digital world.--Anne