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Technical trends: Africa telecoms faces new connection challenge

By Guy Berger, Highway Africa News Agency, reporting from Cairo

Egypt’s hieroglyphics are among Africa’s oldest communications, and it is fitting that Cairo was the setting of a landmark event about 21st century ways of communicating on the continent.

But the Africa-wide summit convened by UN agency, the International Telecoms Union (ITU), also needed to give impetus to a lot more growth – including to Internet access.

There was much for the expected 10 000 participants to party about in Cairo. New technology and falling costs have seen extraordinary growth in telephony in Africa, and more is to come. In mobile connections, which are now double those of fixed lines, there are almost 52 million cellphones around the continent.

Said ITU official, Michael Minges: “Mobile technology is the Information Society in Africa.” Yet, there is also a long way to go to reach the 820 million inhabitants of the continent – and to reach even the majority who do have telephone connections but no Internet access.

Telecom connections across the continent are vital for people talking to each other, but real participation in the Information Society means they also need access to follow-on services such as Internet e-mail and the world wide web – and to high-quality access at that.

The ITU said that, though the number of Internet users in Africa rose by almost a third between 2002 and 2003, the bigger picture was that this meant there were now just one person in 50 on the continent who is “wired”. The focus of the Cairo conference was on growing basic telephone services further, whether through cellular and wireless systems or through cables and copper wires. But the ITU also reminded delegates that Africa faced an even bigger challenge – the need for fast-speed and “always-on” connections to the Internet.

Known as “broadband”, this rich connection capacity was needed, said the ITU, for activities like tele-medicine. In this scenario, doctors in different geographical areas, for example, could work together in real-time through an inexpensive videoconference discussion of a patient’s x-rays. Around the world, studies also show that when people have access to affordable broadband, they use the Internet a whole lot more – because waiting time is cut, and they can also access audiovisual content without problems.

The “broadband” scenario raises the likelihood that users will be charged more for the amount of data (voice, images, etc.) coming through their connection, rather than for the minutes they spend using the link. That’s another way a development that starts with telecoms triggers models that are different to conventional telephony traditions.

The Cairo summit came in the context that “broadband” technology had added another level to the digital divide – leaving Africa even further behind than it has been.

The big divide nowadays is not only about access to services for basic telephony, and not only about access to the Internet. It is also becoming one about the quality of access to the Internet – between who has broadband access . and everyone else.

According to the ITU, Africa has very little broadband, and what does exist is mainly limited to the relatively few places where there are already fixed lines. The result is that citizens of Luxembourg (450 000 people) have more broadband bandwidth available to them than the 820 million people of Africa put together.

Because of this, there was interest in Cairo in wireless methods of spreading broadband across the continent. The ITU for one believed that, because of the limited fixed line infrastructure, “Africa’s broadband will be driven by alternative access methods” – and in particular, wireless. It suggested that wireless broadband services in Africa could and should be allowed to kill several birds with one stone – allow for voice, data and Internet services. This contrasts with much of the continent where some companies are allowed to do voice calls only, while others may offer only
Internet and are banned from providing voice.

The technology treated by the ITU as the most promising was WiMax, which can carry 70 megabits per second over a radius of 50 km. Satellite services could play a role in linking WiMax points together and into the broader Internet, although they were not a major point of discussion in Cairo.

WiMax Internet access does not necessarily mean mobile use – in the way that a cellphone user can keep a call moving from cell to cell. But there are technologies, known as 2.5 generation, which do allow for a degree of Internet connection, even if not quite at the full broadband level. A factor limiting the growth of information on the Internet in the First World has been the fact that no one wants to pay for content online. However, the ITU pointed out that people were generally used to paying for
telephone services, and that this business model could be the basis for viable information businesses making Internet content available via cellphones.

In Korea, more than one in three people use their cellphones to get information from the Internet, especially for entertainment advice and even viewing movies. “M-commerce”, when a cellphone serves as a credit card, with the bill coming onto your phone account, is also taking off in Korea.

The ITU said that “Africa’s robust growth leads that of Latin America and the former Soviet republics, but its jaw-droppingly low penetration rate still leaves a yawning void. Under 6% of all Africans can access telecommunications of any kind.”
Africa’s robust growth leads that of Latin America and the former Soviet republics, but its jaw-droppingly low penetration rate still leaves a yawning void. Under 6% of all Africans can access telecommunications of any kind.”If Cairo adds momentum to telecoms growth around the continent, and to broadband Internet as part of this, it will turn out to be an important milestone in tackling the digital divide.

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The Big Change is a business strategy blog and newsletter published by Arthur Goldstuck, managing director of World Wide Worx, a leading technology research organisation based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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