Serving up the broadband alphabet soup
If you want to put your finger on the pulse of the digital divide, look no further than television. No, not the migration to digital transmission, which is occupying broadcast authorities across Africa. We’re talking about TV content via broadband connectivity. While Africa wrestles with getting networks in place, and every new roll-out of a local 3G network is big news, in the developed world that is old hat. The latest announcement from Hutchison 3G UK is a case in point: a deal to provide access to episodes of American channel HBO’s television shows to British viewers through Hutchison’s subscription video-ondemand service. Not that HBO is a big deal, or that Africa should be rushing for on-demand subscription content. It merely highlights what is made possible once 3G networks are mature. And this, in turn highlights how far back we are kept when we hold back on communications technology. In fact, just as 3G begins to spread the benefits and challenges of wireless broadband across Africa, the next generation of connectivity is joining the alphabet soup. 4G is not an official standard, but is broadly accepted as including WiMAX (fixed and mobile broadband), LTE (Long Term Evolution, a highspeed mobile broadband) and UMB (for Ultra Mobile Broadband). The standards are approved, equipment is available, but both business strategies and government regulatory sloth holds it back. World Wide Worx research in South Africa has shown that mobile broadband grew four times as fast as fixed line broadband last year. And there is a single reason: South Africa boasts one single supplier of fixed line broadband, while it has six suppliers of mobile broadband. The more competition, the greater the supply, the greater the competitiveness, and the greater the take-up. More important, the greater the regulatory openness to competition, the healthier the market. A new Africa-wide research project from World Wide Worx reveals great expectations for prices of connectivity to come down and competition to increase as new undersea cables begin to connect the continent. These expectations are beginning to be met in some countries, notably Kenya, Morocco and Mauritius, where the emphasis is not only on getting the country connected, but also on doing so in a way that will reach as many citizens as possible and, in the case of Morocco, using the best technology possible. The missing ingredients continue to be the next generation of customer access equipment for those who are connected, and affordable availability of access for those who are not. But, once Africa is getting connected, there is no excuse for regulators to keep that connectivity to old alphabets, or for networks to do so using technology that will date faster than you can say “1-2-3-4G please”.