Going the last mile for fibre optics: it will take time for the benefits of extra bandwidth to filter through to individuals in Africa.

Author:Ford, Neil

There has been great fanfare in recent years every time a new intercontinental subsea fibre optic cable has been completed between Africa and the rest of the world but with a handful of exceptions, the much vaunted broadband revolution is still largely confined to coastal cities with easy access to the cables.

Many commentators claim that the sector has therefore failed, but it was always going to take time to secure the finance required to develop national backbones and then connect individual homes and businesses to networks via fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) projects.

The first cable reached sub-Saharan shores in 2009 and there are now 14 of them, bringing far more digital capacity than the continent can currently utilise. Last year saw 19 more African countries announce plans to develop domestic backbones, which will mean that almost every African country will be connected to at least one of the subsea cables, helping to boost their mobile telecoms capacity and also with the intention of providing high speed broadband access to consumers.

The pace of last mile uptake has increased this year. The most active backbone contractors are Huawei, Alcatel-Lucent and China Telecom and once all these backbones are in place, there should be a big rise in the pace of urban fibre network development.

The industry as a whole should not be too pessimistic. It was always going to take some time for the benefits of extra bandwidth to filter through to individuals. Yet there is little doubt that progress has been slower than many assumed and significantly slower away from coastal cities.

The main cause of this appears to be the high cost of financing the last mile of fibre, even in densely populated, prosperous urban areas. Away from major cities and coastal towns, there is a real possibility that mobile technology will advance before fibre networks are even developed and the technology is superseded.

As might be expected, South Africa is attracting the most investment and a number of programmes are already underway: in Johannesburg, Durban, Cape Town and Tshwane. Work began on connecting wealthy suburbs in Cape Town last year and the City of Johannesburg had signed a public private partnership deal with Ericsson to build a city-wide network but this was cancelled last year and development is now entirely in state hands.

Beyond South Africa, Liquid Telecom has been particularly active. It is developing FTTH services in Kilifi on the Kenyan coast, north of...

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