Until recently, Africa had some of the highest international bandwidth costs anywhere in the world. Although it varied from country to country, the international element of the cost to the consumer was a significant proportion of the overall cost he or she paid. The same was true for institutional users like governments, or for those in the private sector. This cost affected both voice (fixed and mobile) and data users alike. With International trade and the exchange of ideas essential to Africa’s success, this high cost of international bandwidth posed a significant barrier to African countries’ ability to participate in world trade and to increase its capacity and skills. Without cheaper international bandwidth African countries ran the danger of being left behind in the global race. In the past year, many African countries have gained access to fibre-optic international submarine cables for the first time: some directly and some, like landlocked countries, via terrestrial fibreoptic links with neighbouring countries. Other countries are gaining access to a second or even third international cable. The arrival of fibre-optic technology has not only improved Internet connectivity, but prices have come down and service levels have increased – especially in the East African region, which in the past year has seen two submarine cables arrive on its shores. The arrival is a culmination of the long-awaited undersea fibre-optic connection to the region – which was the only part of the world missing such a link, thus leaving satellite technology as the only means of connecting to the rest of the globe. These multimillion-dollar undersea fibre-optic cables are expected to create jobs; as well as provide reliable Internet and telecommunication services to industry stakeholders by minimizing the difficulties of switching traffic between African countries and eliminating the inconveniences and added cost of first routing traffic to Europe – as was the case before. With affordable and efficient ICT infrastructure, African countries will also be able to venture into the field of business process outsourcing, a rapidly growing global industry. Improved connectivity has made broadband Internet access affordable to a much wider range of the population. The Internet has brought access to education, unbiased information, and improved competitiveness in the global marketplace: factors that are expected to empower and revolutionize African economies and societies. However, for the full benefit of the new international fibre-optic connectivity to unfold, all the other elements along the supply chain to the end user need to be developed.
• National fibre backbone networks to take the new cheap bandwidth to population centres around the country. For example, in Kenya the National Optic Fibre Broadband Infrastructure (NOFBI) connects major towns and border points, while connections to district headquarters will provide links to other small arteries that connect the end users to the main cables;
• Policy, legal and regulatory regimes for fair and open access to the international fibre-optic cables and the national backbone; and
• Wireless mobile broadband infrastructure (and competition) on the access level.
The connection to the submarine cables does not necessarily spell the demise of satellite connectivity. With fibre-optic technology alone, only the users in urban areas will benefit from this Internet revolution. The last mile connectivity is still a challenge and this is where satellite broadband services will be invaluable in empowering thousands of Africans with high-speed Internet.