Turning Facts into Fiction

Why Africa’s Present doesn’t have to be its Future, when it comes to broadband?

More than 3.2 billion people in the world have access to the Internet. This includes around 642 million Chinese, 280 million Americans, 243 million Indians, 109 million Japanese, 108 million Brazilians, and 84 million Russians, among others.  These individuals use the Internet for economic development, entrepreneurship, education, and health care.

There is a notable absentee from that list of headline numbers: Africa.

A recent survey conducted by the U.N. Broadband Commission reported that 8 out of 10 countries with the lowest levels of Internet availability in the world are in sub-Saharan Africa. Those eight countries are Ethiopia, Niger, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Somalia, Burundi, Eritrea and South Sudan. Sadly, Internet penetration in all these countries is less than 2 percent of the population.

What is even more alarming is the fact that, on a weighted average, the entire continent’s internet penetration is dragged below 20%. This is in contrast to the global population average, where 50% will have broadband by the time you are reading this article.

That means there are nearly 900 million people alive today in Africa who are unable to benefit from the internet. Equally importantly, that means close to one billion people are unable to trigger the benefits that internet connection can deliver local and national economies.

The failure to even reach 20% penetration levels is key, since this is the recognized tipping point. Penetration rates of at least 20% are needed for real socio-economic benefits to be spurred. This positive correlation between connectivity and growth has been observed so frequently that “broadband” is now the synonym of “economic development” in many parts of the world.

A significant broadband presence does more than reflect the wealth and commercial strength of a particular society: it actively drives it. Governments need to be alert to this fact, and to the return on investment that is achievable once you gain a clear understanding of the benefits of a strong broadband infrastructure. That is not to say that this is the silver bullet sought by many nations, in Africa and beyond. However, the opportunity to connect at speeds faster than any silver bullet could ever achieve needs to be embraced. Nowhere is this more true than across vast areas of Africa.

Many countries in Africa have such poor fixed-line infrastructure that the whole idea of rolling out broadband seems like an unattainable dream.  And, without broadband, a large percentage of Africans will be denied access to many of the opportunities that those in other countries take for granted.

Broadband in Africa is not being deployed fast enough or far enough, putting it out of reach for many people and businesses. Moreover, broadband has direct impact on trade, manufacturing, agriculture, banking, education, and health care. The potential to channel the natural creativity and resourcefulness of the vast majority of African people is being lost.

Africa is a continent with the largest number of least-developed countries, landlocked and small-island developing states — each facing different challenges when it comes to tapping internet backbones. The many different countries in Africa face a range of different challenges, and find themselves at varying points of the broadband connectivity journey.

Countries to the north of the continent face challenges with submarine connection too, albeit of a different nature. This is a result of the specific purpose that lay behind investment in international submarine. Whilst individual countries with cables along the North African coast enjoy direct submarine links to European neighbors, and indeed to countries far further afield in Asia, they are less well served for connectivity with the Middle East.

Moreover, submarine cables off the coast have been designed with vast capacity, but by mid-2015 barely 8% of capacity was being utilized. Obviously, this confirms the presence of many issues, some of which have no quick solutions on the horizon. Now if we look high above the horizon, way beyond it and up into space, then perhaps we might see things differently.

In rural areas, mobile networks can be a more realistic option for providing voice and data services cost effectively and quickly. But the truth is, these networks aren’t as resilient in these remote areas, assuming coverage is provided to start with.

In fact, for many landlocked counties in sub-Saharan Africa, the cost of tapping into large sub marine cables is prohibitive due to disproportionate pricing. 

This is where satellite broadband comes in. Untethered from copper cables and those few and far apart overburdened cell towers, satellite broadband can reach any area under the sun. It can overcome the limitations of other network systems, overriding them when cables suffer damage – either through natural wear and tear, or deliberate cuts. Satellite technology, by its very location, is far less prone to disruption. It offers an immediate back-up service for the less reliable physically vulnerable infrastructure located both on and under the ground. Business continuity is key, as is the ability to provide constant vital support to critical industries, infrastructure and national security.

And this is what we have honed our technology to do, reach anybody and everybody equally well, unfazed by mountains, canyons or massive bodies of water (or desert). Our solutions are not burdened by geopolitics or lack of physical infrastructure. They don’t distinguish between a wealthy country or a poor one. Whether it is an oilfield survey outpost, a scientific expedition, a humanitarian mission or a remote school off the beaten track, satellite broadband solutions do not differentiate or falter.

The arrival of the information age in those less developed markets would not be science fiction, but simple science reality. Furthermore, that 20% penetration of broadband will simply be just a small statistical dip on the road to socio-economic recovery and growth.

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