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African broadband access accelerates

By   |  December 9, 2005

Broadband access has become increasingly available in Africa over the last four years according to the authors of a new report published by Balancing Act. The report is based on a survey of 100 operators on the continent.

According to authors Paul Hamilton and Russell Southwood, between 2001 and the present day a wide range of both wireline and wireless broadband technologies have been deployed across Africa. The first were deployed from around 2001, and the pace has picked up from 2003 onwards. The technologies which have been deployed have changed over time; the most recent trend has seen the implementations of WiMAX 802.16 standard networks which can deliver broadband over a range of up to as far as 75km.

“Uptake of broadband is accelerating in the most developed Internet markets,” says Hamilton. “In terms of uptake of broadband, the survey indicates that there are four tiers. The markets of Egypt, Madagascar, Reunion, and South Africa have tens to hundreds of thousands of broadband subscribers. There is a middle tier, such as Senegal, which has between 1 000 and 10 000 subscribers. And then there is a third tier with the majority of other countries which have deployed broadband in which operators currently report several hundred subscribers.

“Behind this lies a fourth tier in which operators in some third to a half of African countries have either tens of broadband users, or have not yet invested in the roll-out of broadband networks. This exaggerates a similar pattern seen for existing dial-up Internet markets. In part, it is a chicken and egg situation; if operators and ISPs do not achieve critical mass of users and revenues sufficient to invest in new infrastructure they will not do so.”

Southwood says, however, that “if broadband access can’t be supplied at lower prices than at present, it will remain a niche market for corporates and wealthy individuals. More competition is needed to lower prices for every element in the delivery of the service. The SAT3 monopoly keeps international prices high for West Africa and there is not yet enough competition at the national backbone and local loop levels. However things are beginning to change quite quickly in countries like Kenya and South Africa and others are sure to follow.”

The report says one of the biggest drivers of broadband demand could prove to be customers wanting access to VoIP calling which will allow them cheap international calling, enabling them to talk to friends and family in the diaspora. Although PC-to-PC calling requires users to have a computer, it is likely that a number of operators will offer VoIP-enabled handsets for using with a broadband connection, making it easier for consumers who want a simple option, either at home or in a cyber-cafe.

Roll-out
The report found that at least 18 incumbent fixed-line operators had deployed ADSL by September 2005, with a few including Telkom SA and Telecom Egypt offering a wider range of wireless solutions (WiFi, FWA, CDMA2000, WiMAX). In these markets where incumbents have deployed ADSL, ISPs typically resell the broadband services of the incumbent.

In a few cases however, the local loop has been unbundled and ISPs have installed DSLAM equipment at local exchanges enabling them to offer their own independent DSL networks.

The Ghanaian ISP Internet Ghana for example is now offering ADSL in the capital – in Accra North, Accra Central, and in Cantonments. Otherwise ISPs and other service providers are providing their customers with broadband services using a variety of wireless technologies including wireless local area network (WLAN)/ WiFi, fixed wireless access (FWA), cellular and domestic VSAT, or a combination of these.

The report also found that the most prolific implementations of broadband have been wireless: two-way Ku-band broadband VSAT offered by satellite service providers, localised WiFi hotspot offerings typically by ISPs, and broadband FWA by ISPs, alternative fixed-line operators and also incumbents. VSAT is ubiquitous with every square inch of Africa being covered by satellite footprints capable of delivering Ku-band services, the only restrictions to its use being licensing regimes in different countries.

According to the report with the launching of 2.5G and 3G services, mobile operators are now positioning themselves to compete against fixed-line operators for the provision of broadband services.

By August 2005, ten African GSM operators had launched 2.5G GPRS networks, and three had launched 3G W-CDMA networks. Behind these, at least another dozen are planning the implementation of GPRS, and one was planning to launch W-CDMA by the end of the year (Cell C in South Africa).

The report also highlights the ongoing debate around the definition of broadband: “There is no single accepted definition of what broadband is. However in the developed world there is some consensus that broadband means a download speed of at least 256 Kbps. So when Tiscali UK advertised a 150 Kbps service as ‘broadband’ it was condemned as misleading by a number of other providers. One of those protesting was BT who now claims that broadband is any connection over 500 kbps.

“The other definition is that broadband refers to the ability of the user to view content across the Internet that includes large files, such as video, audio and 3D. Broadband refers to an increased ability to do so. A user’s broadband capability is typically governed by the last mile issue, the connection between the ISP and the user.”

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