Africa: Wirelessly Bridging the Digital Divide

The World Wide Web is 25 years old this year. The invention has not only dramatically changed the way the human race communicates, but has also brought improved access to information, ideas and social change. Today, around 40% of the world’s population has an internet connection – in 1995 it was less than 1%. Incredibly, this exponential growth has been achieved within one generation. The power and prosperity the Web now commands has, however, generated a new digital divide across the world which is seeing some countries failing to reap the benefits of broadband’s capability.

As things stand

Despite great progress in recent years, Africa’s 1 billion inhabitants still only represent 7% of the online population. Undoubtedly, there remains a challenge in bringing universal connectivity to countries in Africa, which has been well publicised. In today’s digital age, internet connectivity is intrinsically linked to Africa’s economic development. However, in a continent where the average revenue per user (ARPU) for mobile network users is amongst the lowest in the world, creating the business case to deploy connectivity is exceptionally challenging for operators.

Despite this challenge, Africa’s telecommunications market is one of the fastest growing in the world. Researchers have forecast that by the end of 2014, there will be more than 635 million mobile subscriptions in Sub-Saharan Africa, rising to about 930 million by late 2019, with three in four of those mobile subscriptions being internet-enabled. Mobile phone growth has been concentrated in major cities across Africa, which have benefitted from major investment in telecommunication technology. The cost, environment and uncertain returns involved in expanding connectivity into remote or less-established urban areas often deters operators from investing, resulting in a large proportion of Africa remaining unconnected.

A business opportunity

With their high population density, youthful demographics and increasing number of new business ventures, the socio-economic profile of these fast growing urban areas has led to a pent-up demand for high speed connectivity (mobile and fixed). Small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs), for instance, are important drivers of growth in economies across Sub-Saharan Africa as they account for up to 90% of all businesses. With The World Bank forecasting that the Sub-Saharan Africa economies are set to accelerate from 4.6% in 2014 to 5.2% in 2015-16, SMEs clearly present profitable opportunities for operators to roll-out wide scale coverage.

Being able to cost-effectively bridge the digital divide and expand connectivity in these growing areas therefore represents a competitive edge for operators at a time when the mainstream mobile market is becoming saturated. Recent technological advances in wireless infrastructure mean mobile operators have never had a better opportunity to capitalise on this demand.

Network connectivity

Setting up traditional infrastructure to address fixed connectivity is not always financially viable. A large initial investment may be required, taking many years to break-even. This had led a growing number of forward -thinking operators to maximise the return on their existing mobile backhaul infrastructure by using spare capacity to address enterprise access. This co-existence of multiple virtualised services within the same physical network is made possible through the intelligent software now available, such as wireless backhaul solutions like point-to-multipoint (PMP) microwave. By creating converged networks such as this, operators can deploy the high capacity backhaul needed to future-proof the mobile network, and simultaneously monetise its spare capacity for enterprise-grade internet access.

Wireless innovation

Further cost efficiencies can be achieved through PMP microwave by creating a wide-area sector of coverage from a ‘hub’ location. Multiple sites, either backhaul or access, can be served by a PMP sector, which enables equipment and spectrum costs to be amortised across a number of links. Analyst consultancy Senza Fili found this allows PMP microwave to deliver total cost of ownership savings of up to 50% over fibre or point-to-point microwave technologies, while delivering identical carrier-grade services. The software defined networking (SDN) ability of the latest high capacity PMP microwave solutions provides the flexibility to customise virtual networks and support a range of services. Strategy Analytics recently documented that the use of SDN to boost the efficiency of data traffic on backhaul could save mobile operators in Africa and the Middle East $162 million a year by 2017.

Bridging the divide

Economic growth in Africa is undoubtedly building momentum in the enterprise access market, due to both the growing number of SMEs and in the large multinationals strengthening their presence in the region. However, the geographical distribution of businesses requires operators to review their strategies if they are fully to address this demand.

By utilising the latest wireless technologies like PMP microwave, operators now have an economically viable business model to expand coverage and maximise the opportunities from this market. This not only provides new revenue streams, but bridges the digital divide through providing new carrier-grade connectivity to previously under-served areas.


Dr John Naylon is Chief Technology Officer at CBNL


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