"We are fully committed to turning this digital divide into a digital opportunity for all, particularly for those who risk being left behind and being further marginalized." – Declaration of Principles from the World Summit of the Information Society, Geneva, 2003.
In April 1968, JCR Licklider and Robert W Taylor published a paper in the journal, Science and Technology appropriately entitled The Computer as a Communication Device. In this seminal and ground-breaking work, the authors explained an experiment undertaken amongst a group of scientists to communicate through machines. What today we take for granted as a part of our everyday lives was only a possibility in the minds of a number of intrepid scientists paving the way for the technological revolution we are all currently witnessing. This seemingly simple experiment, to pass an electronic message from one machine at a certain location, to another machine at a separate location, required the resources of the most powerful computers (AR PANET) and the greatest minds. Although the message to be passed was LOGIN, the only letters received at the other end were “LO”. The system then proceeded to crash, ending the experiment, but starting a revolution. This was the first time humans had communicated with each other through a computer. Although it is nigh impossible to determine the moment the Internet was born, but based upon what the Internet has become today, namely the greatest tool and facilitator for the sharing of information and communication in the history of mankind, those two simple letters passed across a network, not encumbered by geography, certainly qualifies as its birth. This seemingly benign, and oft-overlooked moment 40 years ago, also, it can be argued, has the ignoble honour of being the birth of the digital divide. The fissure that then developed between those with access to technology and information, and those without access to information resources began to grow. The digital divide was born. This began the movement from the industrial age to a technological one. Nowhere was this divide felt as strongly as Africa. With little access to technology and even less access to resources to redress the balance, the continent was certainly on the wrong side of this technological divide. This ever growing rift is now finally being addressed. Throughout the African continent, a seismic paradigm shift has occurred, making access to information and communication technologies no longer a luxury, but a genuine necessity and priority. Whether a farmer in the High Atlas or a business executive in Cape Town, the transformative power of technology has been proven. Across the continent, there is an uniqueness and heterogeneity to every member of the family of African nations, yet they are all distinctly African, and it is this African-ness that must be tapped into in order to address the main issues of the digital divide. Through organizations such as International Telecommunications Union, a blueprint has been laid out and goals set. Setting these benchmarks has meant that a measurable target has been forged, and as societies and human beings, we will be judged on whether we attained the Millennium Development Goals set out in Rwanda in 2007, and repeated in Geneva in 2009. In this context, education becomes integral to reaching and surpassing the Millennium Development Goals. Education must provide the glue to create societies whereby each generation builds upon its predecessor to leave a lasting legacy of betterment through ICT’s. It becomes only possible to achieve parity between the technological haves and have nots, across the planet once these issues are addressed. The African success story can be used as an example for other markets. The pre-paid mobile telephony model, and Mobile Banking are potentially only a few innovations where Africa leads the world. With only approximately 4.3% of the African population currently online and with access to the Internet, the next challenge facing policy-makers is to ensure the egalitarian spread of accessibility to be able to provide Universal Access. Access to information and communication should only ever be an arms length away. Whether it is in the form of a mobile phone, a computer or a fixed line phone, it has become a basic human right to have access to technology. The recognition of the need for access to technology was stated in Geneva (2003), Tunis (2005), Kigali (2007) and affirmed recently in Geneva (2009). The goals are simple, noble and universal: “To build a people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society, where everyone can create, access, utilize and share information and knowledge, enabling individuals, communities and peoples to achieve their full potential in promoting their sustainable development and improving their quality of life, premised on the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and respecting fully and upholding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” What began 40 years ago in a laboratory in California, has today become one the single most important aspects of human life. Whether in the bustling urban centres across Africa, or remote rural villages, the desire to connect has become as urgent as sustenance and shelter, and as it is our duty as human beings to eradicate poverty, war and disease, it is similarly our duty to bridge the digital divide and to bring the benefits of the technological revolution to every citizen, whether in Lagos or London, New York or New Delhi. With the emergence of the Semantic Web, and the very genuine possibility of the latent potential within GRI D computing (CERN), the African continent cannot afford to be further isolated and to allow the divide to grow further. It is within this environment that the 53 nations that make up the African continent find themselves on the eve of 2010.
In light of our feature article in this edition of Africa Telecoms, briefly describe how you feel about Seacom assisting with breaching the digital divide in Africa?
SEACOM is providing a large broadband connection to global networks. Consumers will be using the internet in ways they wouldn’t think of today: on-demand movies, music, home-made video, watching news programs, etc. With new web applications and uses being discovered daily, the potential economic benefits of affordable bandwidth are endless. In Africa, it is projected that there will be a major demand for bandwidth driven by some of the following “hotspots”:
• Tanzania is growing a logistics hub for eight East & Central African countries
• Uganda and Zambia are set to develop strong pharmaceutical research centres
• Kenya is looking at becoming a call centre hub with a major focus on Small & Medium Enterprises
• Rwanda, which has developed a visionary broadband strategy, is looking to establish a hub of bilingual call centres.
SEACOM often hears stories about the impact of inexpensive bandwidth on global Internet content in Europe, North America and Asia; however, SEACOM has seen much African-produced content that will vastly benefit the world. Recently, we met with a research group that is gathering data from traditional healers on homeopathic medicines. We were amazed to learn of the information being gathered and the potential to add to medical research globally. SEACOM’s partnership with southern African research and education networks through TENET (Tertiary Education and Research Network of South Africa) will facilitate faster development by providing subsidised international bandwidth to research and education networks across 40 universities. These education and research institutions now have 50 times more bandwidth at the same annual cost prior to the arrival of SEACOM. Bandwidth now equals the amount which was available to the entire Southern African population in 2008. TENET owns the capacity for the remaining life of the cable, resulting in substantial annual savings whilst enabling the affiliated institutions to develop and increase their international research collaborations and distance learning programmes. SEACOM is working to replicate this programme in East Africa.
Do you have an example of this scenario already or is it too soon?
We’ve already seen a decline in international long haul prices at the end consumer level. In East Africa specifically, Kenya’s progressive approach to telecoms, has resulted in large amounts of bandwidth being made available at a fraction of the cost, resulting in a reported 200% increase in data traffic within 14 days of SEACOM’s launch. South Africa has disappointed SEACOM in translating low cost international bandwidth into reduced consumer price. This is largely due to the major operators investing in their own cables and slowing any adoption of our cable. They also have a large consumer dependence on the incumbent’s terrestrial backhaul and last mile, limiting the ability for ISPs and operators to pass on savings. There has been a marked improvement though. In September 2009, for example, MTN announced a 50% increase in capacity for certain corporate clients in South Africa while Telkom and M-web also announced similar increases. Connectivity is now available, and it's up to governments and internet service providers to pass on savings and capacity to their customers, circumventing constraints and bottlenecks wherever possible.
What is your opinion regarding cheaper broadband which will benefit those who already have access to the internet against those of those who currently have no access ?
Through supplying plentiful bandwidth at a fraction of the current cost, there is no doubt that SEACOM’s arrival opens up unprecedented opportunities for governments, business and ordinary citizens alike. They can finally make use of a network which forms a platform to compete globally, drive economic growth and enhance quality of life. Providing broader access to Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) in Africa is a catalyst to unlocking sustainable economic and social development. By supporting a broad range of stakeholders its possible to develop, create growth and promote the continent as a serious player in the global economy.
From this point onwards, what do you think the next step is?
Now that Africa has a solid fibre backbone what more is needed in order to finally bridge the digital divide? An open and liberal approach to telecommunications is essential. Governments hold the key in allowing businesses to exploit ICT-linked opportunities which will enable the acceleration of broadband penetration. There is also the catalyst effect that needs to be considered. Undersea cables will justify an investment in national fibre, fibre to the home, new wireless networks, data centres, call centres and BPOs.
What has been the biggest hurdle thus far with the Seacom Project?
SEACOM is offering one, seamless product to end-users, across 11 sovereign nations. Some of our challenges were tax and contract related. SEACOM, as an international entity, had to figure out how to sign contracts at a local level and then deliver that product throughout all the countries we were involved with. SEACOM had to use its subsidiaries and local partners in each one of these countries, who were already licensed and established, to carry communication infrastructure. You're trying to set that up in a very short period – keeping in mind that construction of the cable is really only 18 to 24 months. The availability of human resources which could interact with a venture such as SEACOM was also a challenge in some countries.
With only a small amount of capacity sold thus far and a total expected capacity of 1280Gbps, what is the projected time-frame that Seacom is working towards in having the full capacity sold and used throughout Africa?
We have seen capacity purchase continue at a healthy pace since the launch. In fact, we were pleasantly surprised to see East Africa leading the charge. As demand increases and users find new ways to utilise the Internet and overall connectivity, we will experience an exponential trend in capacity requirements leading to more purchases. From an investment perspective, we expect a return on this investment within five years.
In your estimation, what effect will the partnership with Altech’s KDN have on Broadband access in Central Africa?
From the outset of the project, we realised the importance of connecting inland countries to the international network and many countries set out to deploy massive terrestrial networks in anticipation of the arrival of real and affordable international bandwidth connectivity. With more and more countries getting connected to the rest of the world via the SEACOM system, it is only a matter of time before we see the direct socio-economic benefits this will have on the entire region. The African market for international bandwidth is expected to swell within a short period of time, with a significant portion of this new demand coming from East and central Africa. Altech and SEACOM have taken a giant step towards unlocking this enormous potential in East Africa. Our success would not be possible without the infrastructure which links our beach landing stations to metropolitan PoPs (Point of Presence). KDN’s extensive inland infrastructure in East Africa will link our landing station in Mombasa to Nairobi, then on to Kampala and Kigali. In addition, we hope to connect Kigali and Addis Ababa soon and will continue to explore further opportunities across central African countries.
Are there future plans to extend the SEACOM network to the west coast of Africa or is the current network as far as the project is planned at the moment?
Although no specific plans are in place at this point, we will continuously evaluate all opportunities and strategic options to compliment and improve our current offering.
What impact will SEACOM’s cable have on traditional voice communications in Africa or is SEACOM purely going to provide data services to the continent?
Access to previously unobtainable, cheap and easily available broadband will allow East and Southern Africa to connect to international broadband networks. The infrastructure should see Africa becoming a major competitor for call centres/business process outsourcing (BPO), research and education. Financial, manufacturing and other sectors will bring down their cost of doing business while increasing their productivity. This will, in part, be possible through the provision of cheaper traditional voice calls using fibre networks. As an example, Gateway Communications has purchase significant capacity on SEACOM.
This Issue of Africa Telecoms is focusing on Backhaul as a subsector of the Telecoms Market in Africa. What do you think the most challenging area is for Mobile Operators in Africa when it comes to Backhaul?
Mobile operators in Africa are facing the same issues as network operators in many parts of the world: building their networks to meet the quality of experience their customers expect while earning the profits their shareholders demand. From the vendor perspective, it’s whether you make your customers money or save them money. Backhaul is frequently seen as a spiraling expense, we believe we have a solution that gets that situation under control at a cost that is very attractive compared to the alternatives.
CBNL is also stated at having 30 deployments around the world and helps 2G,3G, HSPA, Wimax and LTE Networks. How many of the deployments are in Africa? Can you provide further insight into your operations in Africa?
Certainly, our presence in Africa has grown considerably over the last three years. We currently have five network deployments with MTN in countries including Rwanda, Nigeria and South Africa. All in all, we have eight networks operating in Africa including deployments with Vodacom, Gateway and Inwi. We also recently renewed our framework agreement with MTN group which was announced in October last year. Each of MTN’s operating companies now has access to a range of pre-approved VectaStar microwave backhaul equipment which has been validated for a range of applications, including backhaul of 2G, WiMAX and 3G network traffic, and the provision of broadband Internet access services to businesses. The FIFA World Cup was a significant catalyst for growth of South Africa’s ICT and mobile telecoms sector. Operators have made substantial infrastructure investments and service upgrades that will benefit subscribers for years to come. In particular, HSPA+ has given consumers significant improvements in data speeds.
CBNL states that it is a market leader in Point to Multi Point backhaul solutions. Can you explain the differences between the CBNL products and traditional solutions?
There are a few fundamental differences between our products in comparison to traditional solutions such as Point-to-Point (PtP), but let me briefly highlight how VectaStar works. Our technology uses transmission architecture similar to broadcast standards, where a central hub communicates with a number of remote terminals within a sector. Spectrum and capacity is shared across the sector giving operators the flexibility to manage network resources and provision those resources to a certain cellsite, if and when, required. This is inherently different to PtP which uses two radios per connection on a one-to-one basis. Spectrum is tied to each of these connections and is unable to be reassigned to another cell site that maybe experiencing a higher footfall. Essentially VectaStar is different because it simplifies microwave backhaul networks, reducing the number of radios needed to create each sector, which in result makes them cheaper and faster to build and reduces backhaul costs by up to 60%.
At the end of 2010, CBNL had a major round of financing that was raised, and Graham Peel, CEO, stated that the financing would be used to drive product development as well as sales and support. Is Africa one of the regions that CBNL will be focusing on in 2011?
Absolutely, our growth plans include increasing the scale of our operations across Africa, particularly in the Sub-Saharan region and Nigeria. With mobile internet access in Africa growing exponentially and with many operators in the region deploying or looking to deploy 3G services over the next few years, CBNL has a strong opportunity to help operators manage and provision their enterprise access and backhaul networks for this increase in lumpy data traffic.
The ever-growing data market in Africa is a great opportunity for CBNL as backhaul becomes more and more important for network operators. Where does CBNL see this market moving to, and how is CBNL helping operators face the issues of mobile data backhaul?
You’re right there is a great opportunity. We’ve seen a huge amount of optimism from mobile operators in the uptake of mobile devices including tablets across Africa. Bringing ‘mobile to the masses’ in Africa has a significant upside for all concerned. For operators and device manufacturers, as well as all other companies involved in the installation and operation of the networks and services, there is obviously an opportunity for new revenue growth, as well as the economic benefit it will provide to a much wider community. To help operators meet the demand that this growth causes, our technology is ideal for African operators as it allows them to make efficient use of scarce spectrum resources and at the same time, ensure that provision is made for peak data throughput.
How does CBNL ensure the quality of service of data and/or voice running through its Microwave point to multipoint system?
VectaStar offers four priority classes which are numbered 0 (the highest), to 3 (the lowest) and each service is allocated to one class. Therefore, bandwidth is firstly offered to the highest priority class and the remaining bandwidth is then offered to the next class. Prioritisation is used in conjunction with Adaptive Modulation. All radio links suffer from fading and typically the longer the link and the higher the frequency, the more frequent the fading will be. Therefore, radio links are planned to take account of the inevitable fading to ensure that they are reliable in the presence of a fading environment. When they are properly designed, radio links can provide 99.999% availability. With seven levels of adaptive modulation built into VectaStar, the system ensures the best possible performance in all weather conditions.
How well does the CBNL Microwave systems integrate with existing legacy terrestrial networks?
VectaStar is actually a new topology for microwave backhaul. Therefore the most efficient way to integrate it with existing terrestrial microwave systems would be to use VectaStar as an overlay in dense urban situations. This overlay can also be applied to support the deployment of 3G networks throughout the region leaving traditional point to point microwave to deal with the rural situations where it is still efficient.
Does the CBNL Vectastar platform increase or decrease OPEX and CAPEX and what payback period can the operators expect?
It decreases both CAPEX and OPEX. It does this by reducing the amount of equipment that needs to be deployed – thereby reducing installation labour which is a major contributor to CAPEX. Once installed, VectaStar has a smaller footprint, reducing site and antenna space rental costs. It uses a lot less radio spectrum which reduces annual costs as well. It is difficult to give an exact ROI figure that applies to every situation, but we frequently find that the reduction in CAPEX and OPEX as well as the time to build the network is 50% less than the alternatives so you can see that the improvement in ROI is significant.
With Infrastructure sharing becoming more and more important internationally, does the Vectastar system allow for the potential of Mobile Operators sharing backhaul infrastructure?
Good question. It really depends on how the sharing is structured by operators. If they are using a common RAN the process of sharing is relatively simple for VectaStar to support. However, if the sharing is only site based then the different equipment at each site could present issues for any backhaul vendor. Our answer would be to work with operators to come up with the right solution-but it’s fair to say that we haven’t found a network that we can’t backhaul, yet.
Can the current price curve of mobile backhaul keep up with the cost of flash memory and broadband data to ensure that the end cost to consumers remains on a downward curve?
Absolutely, in all cases microwave capacity is growing faster than the aggregated traffic coming from cell sites. In fact, CBNL has been developing a new radio controller that will eventually achieve 1GB/s throughput per sector – with the first inclination doubling our current throughput level to 300mb/s. The biggest challenge for the industry is reducing the cost and time spent in building the backhaul network in the first place. That is an area where our product, VectaStar, excels: our product takes a fraction of the time to provision a connection when compared to the alternatives – enabling our customers to build-out their networks quickly and capture the market from their competitors.
Does the Vectastar system allow for the use of Carrier Grade Ethernet as well as Microwave transmission?
Yes it does. All our VectaStar platforms include Ethernet interfaces and offer throughput of 150mb/s. With the recent introduction of the VectaStar Radio Controller, based on a Gigabit Ethernet backplane supporting up to 10GB/s sustained operation, we will increase throughput to 1GB/s per sector.
There have been many exciting things happening recently at Ericsson but one major highlight was the IMS MMTel launch in Rwanda. This was the first commercial deployment of IMS solutions across Africa and is allowing MTN Rwandacell customers to talk to and see friends and family, no matter where they are. Subscribers can start a real-time voice call and upgrade it to a video call or use a chat session which gives a new and more extensive communication possibility. They can also add new users to an ongoing call and start a conference. Pre-paid as well as post-paid subscribers can benefit from these new communication services even if the users are outside Rwanda. This IP (MMTel) based solution brings people closer together through video and chat communication and introduces a more flexible and modern lifestyle. In the future, consumers will be able to define their own rules for how and when they like to communicate. Depending on their own preferences, users can redirect voice calls to one device and video calls to another device in any order and at any time. IMS MMTel is a standardized solution for offering Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) based high quality telephony and multimedia services. IMS MMTel will play a major role in the service control of voice and multimedia communication services in the transformation to IP and Long Term Evolution (LTE) networks. The IMS MMTel is the solution for cost-effective communication service production and the platform for offering new services. New enriched, flexible, fast and costefficient multimedia services entering the market enable MTN Rwandacell to fully utilize their up-to-date network to provide more novel and high quality communication services. In addition to this exciting project in Rwanda, Ericsson has been involved in several other important initiatives in the last few months – including the creation of Africa’s first “Digital City” in collaboration with the City of Johannesburg. The recently launched Johannesburg Broadband Network Project has focused on connecting the City of Johannesburg through the laying of next-generation fibre optic network cables while leveraging Ericsson’s Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) technology in order to deliver faster and more reliable broadband services. Upon completion, this will cover all eight regions in the City of Johannesburg, providing voice and broadband access alongside a variety of relevant solutions in various fields such as education, health and even power. We would like to thank you for the support you provide Ericsson and ask you to please stay tuned for more exciting and technological breakthroughs from us!