The boost in undersea cable capacity that is on the cards for Africa bodes well for the acceleration of internet availability and quality across the continent. Among other things, it promises to pave the way for a fintech and data centre boom across the continent and change the fortunes of the African countries that embrace the opportunities it provides.
According to research firm TeleGeography, $10 billion worth of new cables are expected to enter service around Africa between 2022 and 2024.
These include the African submarine cable consortium project 2Africa, which will extend to 45,000 kilometres and link 33 countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. Then there is Google’s private cable Equiano, which will initially link Portugal, Nigeria, Namibia, South Africa, Togo, and St. Helena, but could expand to many other countries.
The pace of internet connectivity in Africa to date should be viewed in the context that the first undersea cable was landed on the continent in 2009 compared with the first ever landed in more developed economies, which happened in the mid-1970’s.
Progress to date has relied heavily on mobile connectivity, which started with SMS communication before data services were available on the continent. This humble beginning enabled world-first innovative developments like mobile banking in many parts of Africa and extended banking services to millions of previously unbanked people. But the continent has a lot of catching up to do with data connectivity, while coping with erratic electricity supply.
The robustness of the electricity infrastructure to support internet connectivity varies significantly across the continent, according to feedback from LEX Africa members from six different countries. So too does the extent to which their countries have progressed with the infrastructure to support widespread, high-quality connectivity, although the challenges across the continent remain dauntingly similar.
There were 75.6 million internet users in Egypt in January 2022, and internet penetration stood at 71.9% of the total population of almost 107 million, “The latest analysis shows that the number of internet users in Egypt increased by 1.4 million between 2021 and 2022,” says Hend ElHakim, senior associate at Marghany Advocates in Cairo. And 30.8 million households and 15,000 government facilities now have access to fibre connectivity.
He says in October this year Egypt was ranked first among African countries for fixed broadband internet speed in Ookla’s Speedtest Global Index for the first and second quarters of 2022 with an average speed of 46 Mbps, up from 6.5 Mbps in 2019.
Egypt ranks 48th globally in terms of mobile data and home internet package costs, which are quite low, but high when compared with the average Egyptian income, says ElHakim. He says Egypt has ample robust electricity infrastructure to support its internet connectivity requirements. “Further, Egypt is expanding in production of electricity through creating new mega projects such as Dabaa Nuclear Power Plant Renewable Energy and some other renewable energy projects.”
On the new undersea cables on the cards for Africa between 2023 and 2024, RTI International, an independent nonprofit research institute estimates that these will contribute a 0.42% to 0.58% impact on Africa’s economy within its first two to three years of operation, says ElHakim. “This increase is equivalent to $26.4 to $36.9 billion at purchasing power parity.”
Strong, reliable internet services will allow the member states of AfCFTA to establish a unified customary system that facilitates the trade flow of goods within the borders of the AfCFTA countries, which will facilitate, increase and support the trade and implementation of the treaty. It will also connect different users from across the borders of the AfCFTA member states, says ElHakim.
However, three main reasons preventing progress with internet connectivity in Africa include the price of handsets, energy and data being still too high for some populations, he says.
The second reason is the lack of digital skills and literacy, and the third is that the lack of content in local languages is a major issue. “Content and services must be relevant to citizens and meet their needs, which is not available for most African nations yet,” says ElHakim.
There are several internet providers in Rwanda, and the recently introduced connections by Korea Telecom are expected to lead to increased access to affordable and reliable services.
Rwanda has officially launched its new high-speed internet connections, Kigali Wireless Broadband (WiBro) and Kigali Metropolitan Network (KMN), after two years of infrastructure development by Korea Telecom.
Close to four million Rwandans are expected to gain access to high-speed internet in the future via the country’s WiBro project. “In addition this will help to connect more than 700 institutions in the country both public and private,” says Denise Isimbi, junior associate at Certa Law in Kigali.
“This connection will enhance various projects in terms of fibre-optic cable linked to the undersea cable in the next year. The network will connect 36 main points in Rwanda’s 30 districts, with a 2,300-kilometre cable running across the country.”
In early 2022 there were 3.54 million internet users in Rwanda, representing internet penetration of 26,3% of the population of 13.28 million (2021).
In the capital Kigali, internet users access data connectivity and VoIP services through WiBro and the metropolitan network over fibre optic cable.
“Evidently, Korea Telecom will be in charge of this fibre-optic project, which will intend to connect the whole nation in the next couple of years,” says Isimbi.
She says the electricity service infrastructure in Rwanda consists of domestic generation and imported electricity from neighbouring countries and regional shared power plants. Sources of energy used are from hydropower plants, thermal power plants (diesel and heavy fuel generators), methane gas and solar energy.
“According to statistics, the number of households accessing electricity has increased from 10% in 2010 to 75.3% as of October 2022,” says Isimbi. Among the 75.3% households accessing electricity, 50.9% are connected to the national grid while 24.4% are accessing it through off-grid solutions, mainly solar energy and mini-grids, she says.
“The current access targets stipulate 100% access to electricity by the year 2024.”
She says better connectivity from the new undersea cables will be a catalyst for the growth of the Rwandan digital economy, which is on the rise. Improved internet will facilitate interstate trade, and ease customs and the necessary infrastructure needed to implement the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA).
On the downside, lack of sufficient capital is preventing progress with internet connectivity in Africa as a whole. “It means that Africa has to depend on independent investors to inject their capital in the development of internet connectivity infrastructure, which comes at their convenience and not at the pace that Africa needs it,” says Isimbi.
Other hurdles are the lack of political will, lack of adequate infrastructure, and the high cost of internet connectivity, she says.
Internet connectivity has seen significant progress in recent years in Angola, with new companies investing in the sector and a greater reach of services across the country, says Pedro Marques, junior lawyer at FBL Advogados.
He says Angola has three international submarine cables of a total capacity of 60 Tbps that ensure good connection with the outside world, although one of them is old.
“Since 2020 there has been a growth of approximately one million internet users per year. Most recent data shows that 27% of the population has internet connectivity.” Angola has a population of 35.3 million according to UN statistics.
Angola has five internet service providers and three Pay TV providers, and speed and quality are reasonable in Luanda and the main cities, says Marques. “But the price is still high if you look at the minimum and average national wage. “The price of internet plus TV is about four to five times more, compared with Portugal and Brazil, for example,” he says.
Some data and calculations show that to have a Zap fibre service Super 100 Mb package, with internet connectivity at a speed of 100 Mbps, unlimited traffic and 120 television channels, the consumer has to pay the equivalent of $294.4 per month. This compares with $37.7 for an internet service with a speed of 250 Mbps, a thousand GB traffic and 123 TV channels in Brazil, says Marques.
He says in Angola, only 4% of the population is able to afford 1 GB of data per month.
Fibre optic infrastructure has improved a lot and become more effective in urban areas of Angola, “although there are still many places where the service has not yet arrived,” says FBL partner Neuza Melão Dias.
Angola’s capital city Luanda has a reasonable fibre optic infrastructure, allowing the connection of corporate customers with fibre. But of the eighteen provincial capitals, only Cabinda, Benguela, Huambo and Lubango have some fibre infrastructure for corporate customers.
“Interconnection between provinces is mainly via fibre optics, except for some more remote cities where the connection is assured by satellite. The government has recently acquired its own satellite (ANGOSAT 2) which is expected to improve connectivity within the country,” says Dias.
The robustness of the electricity infrastructure services has improved a lot in recent years, particularly in Luanda and has not been an obstacle to expansion of internet connectivity in Angola, she says.
The main hurdle slowing progress with internet connectivity seems to be price. And the quality of the roads is a big obstacle operators have to face to install fibre infrastructure throughout the country. Energy is also a challenge outside the main locations, especially for mobile communications infrastructure, says Dias.
Ghiyta Iraqi, managing partner at I&I Law Firm in Casablanca says Morocco has plans for 4G and 5G in 2023, which should provide greater speed, better quality and lower prices.
She says 84,1% of the Moroccan population (of nearly 38 million) is connected, and although the internet service is not perfect, it’s satisfactory. “Fibre infrastructure is available in the most important districts, the economical cities of Morocco.” Work on the connectivity infrastructure is ongoing and the electricity service infrastructure to support internet connectivity is “good enough in general,” she adds.
Internet connectivity is progressing in the country, “but not as fast as the Moroccan people wish,” says Iraqi. “The operators are more interested in depreciating their infrastructure than offering a full and cheap service to the customers.” And the client service is not that good.
According to the Target Company report, the percentage of the population (of 96 million) with internet access in the DRC is 84%, says Nonkundla Maso, consultant at PLA Law Firm. She says the speed of connectivity is 0.55megabits per second.
The cost of connectivity in the country varies between telecommunications companies. For example, the South African group Vodacom charges $100 per month for 4 Gbps and French group Orange charges $62.
The DRC has had high-speed fibre optic infrastructure since March 2021, which connects the country to the African continent and the rest of the world, says Maso.
On the question of the supporting electricity infrastructure, the DRC has an estimated hydroelectric potential of 100 gigawatts, although only 2.5% of this capacity has been developed so far, says Maso.
She says among other benefits, the planned submarine cable implementation projects are expected to support the installation of international digital platforms in Africa.
“Better internet connectivity will promote “digital trade in Africa”, which is one of the important steps of the Continental Free Trade Agreement, particularly established in the phase of the creation of the common market in Africa.”
The obstacles preventing progress with internet connectivity in DRC and Africa as a whole include the absence of the appropriate fibre optic cable networks, sustainable electricity infrastructure, the “deplorable state of telecommunications infrastructure,” and the high cost of broadband connectivity, says Maso.
In Lesotho, some 30% of the population (of just over 2 million) have internet connectivity, mostly on mobile, says JamesGrundlingh, partner at Webber Newdigate Attorneys in Maseru. “But people connect more at the offices.”
He says, “Speed and quality depend on which service provider you are with and what packages you have subscribed to. Cost of internet in Lesotho is expensive.” Economics will decide on where fibre will be deployed. So, in Lesotho’s case it has mainly been installed in the city.
The robustness of the electricity service infrastructure to support internet connectivity is fair to moderate says Grundlingh.
Improvement in communication infrastructure is a key factor for economic and trade growth. However, despite Lesotho being a signatory to the AfCFTA it has not taken steps to domesticate the provisions of the agreement into domestic law, meaning it does not have the force of law in Lesotho, says Grundlingh.
He adds that the hurdles preventing progress with internet connectivity in Lesotho and Africa as a whole are cost and infrastructure.
The internet penetration rate in Cameroon between 2016 and 2020, was 20%, says Danielle Moukouri, managing partner at D. Moukouri & Partners. But by January 2022, 10.05 million Cameroonians (of a total population of just over 28 million) were reportedly using the internet, raising the internet penetration rate to 36.5%.
Based on the latest World Bank report on the Program for the Acceleration of the Digital Transformation of Cameroon, there is a high rate of 3G, 3.5G, and 4G mobile broadband coverage in the country, says Moukouri. “In January 2021, the price of 1.5 GB of mobile broadband internet was 3.9% of the gross national income per capita,” she says.
The government-owned operator Cameroon Telecommunications (CAMTEL) has a monopoly over the country’s international access to terrestrial fibre networks.
CAMTEL acts as the wholesale operator, while the policies on wholesale and retail prices are controlled by the Telecommunications Regulatory Agency (ART).
The regulator works on implementing reforms to reduce prices, improve service quality, provide incentives for private sector-led innovation, and ensure a safe and secure online environment.
In a notification published earlier this month describing shortcomings in the quality of service, coverage, and performance of access networks, prices, and use of radio frequencies, the Director General of ART urged telecom operators to improve the quality of their services, says Moukouri.
On the question of the robustness of the country’s electricity supply, she says according to a report on the electricity service infrastructure in 34 African countries published by Afrobarometer in April 2022, Cameroon’s electricity grid access rate between 2019 and 2021 was 83%. Despite some hurdles relating to the need for better infrastructure to support internet connectivity, the government and operators are working on improving the quality of the services, says Moukouri.
The new submarine cables, that are set to become operational between 2022 and 2024 around Africa, will help improve internet access, says Moukouri. In Cameroon, it would help to strengthen internet connectivity, facilitate the deployment of 4G and 5G throughout the territory, and ease access to fixed bandwidth.
Implementation of trade facilitation measures is among the objectives listed in Article 4 of the Agreement on the Establishment of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). And improved internet connectivity in Africa will ease the implementation of trade facilitation measures, says Moukouri.
“The growth of the internet market in Cameroon is slow due to relatively high retail prices that cascade from high wholesale prices applied to the retail players. Some geographic areas remain poorly covered, as internet access remains limited or of low quality in some rural areas.”
Slow implementation of reforms to reduce prices and improve service quality, and investment in infrastructure, are identified as the main bottlenecks to address to improve internet connectivity in Cameroon and Africa as a whole, she says.