Telecoms: driving connectivity in Africa

By Clementine Fournier

In recent years, the rapid uptake of smartphones and the increase in data usage across Africa has led to an explosive demand for high quality voice services and data provision across the region. With a market as large as Africa’s, made up from many local and macro-trends that service providers need to address for their specific market, continent-wide connectivity has never been a top priority.

In some countries across Africa, the growth potential has been severely hampered by the underlying infrastructure, which is unable to offer full service provision to end-users. While the continent is getting more and more connected with the launch of several new submarine cables, both geographic and social problems, such as severe weather patterns and human intervention, have resulted in the fibre or submarine cabling to fail in some areas. Because of this, the first step to driving the communications market forward has been to install a cost-effective back-up solution to enable the continuous connectivity necessary to support further growth.

Satellite has emerged as the preferred back-up solution for Africa, as its capacity solutions provide a reliable back-up to operators concerned about disaster recovery and the stability of current capacity backhaul infrastructure. IP over Satellite (IPoSat) in particular can be quickly deployed to cover any problems with existing backhaul solutions and offer high speeds to support usage.

The flexibility of satellite solutions means that even when primary infrastructure is compromised or faces an outage, the solution is able to prioritise high value traffic, increasing bandwidth efficiency by blocking less critical, high bandwidth services such as online gaming and video streaming.

The term ‘high value’ includes voice related traffic, which remains a major source of revenue for operators across the continent. As with other regions across the globe, smartphone adoption is encouraging consumers to use alternative apps to access similar voice services. This has resulted in some regulators actually blocking certain communications apps, whilst in other countries it has been left to the operators to face this challenge through offering reduced tariffs to their customers.

It is in both operators and carriers’ best interests to protect voice revenue as it is such a lucrative stream of income. Therefore, there are tools available that encourage the use of these services and create competitive pricing structures.

Smartphone penetration across Africa hasn’t just led to an increase in competition for traditional communication services, it has also led to an increase in domestic data usage. Following a similar trajectory to other regions such as Europe, we anticipate that domestic usage will slowly spread to roaming usage. This is already being witnessed in some of Africa’s more developed markets where operators are focused on providing their enterprise and higher tier customers with high-speed data connectivity and international roaming services, both in neighbouring countries and to business destinations around the world.

Being able to analyse traffic and monitor the demands of end-users is imperative to giving operators greater control over their customers’ experience. Analytics platforms are the next step for innovative players looking to meet the demands of subscribers; whether it is providing connectivity across borders or improving the performance of the network which they are able to monitor in real time.

The demand for international bandwidth is also increasing in correlation with the popularity of smartphones. 3G coverage has now been launched in all countries but 2G connections are still used by a large majority in sub-Saharan Africa. 4G networks are picking up slowly with licences granted to new players, who have taken the opportunity to penetrate the market as internet service providers, offering high speed internet connectivity to compensate for the lack of digital subscriber lines.

Although the LTE market is undoubtedly growing following its success in other global locations, its provision across Africa is limited. However, once the initial networks have been launched, services such as VoLTE can be developed in a second phase.

This continuous development is driving the African telecoms market forward, moving from strength to strength as first the legacy services are enforced by robust satellite back-up in challenging areas, and then next generation services are introduced to encourage high value customer acquisition and retention. Being able to provide customers with low latency services for voice and data roaming traffic both within Africa and abroad has become key to guaranteeing satisfactory customer experience.

Africa has the potential to build on these impressive levels of growth, with subscribers hungry to use data-intensive services and operators vying to be the first to launch new revenue streams and cash-in on their customers’ demands. With a secure backbone, reinforced in case of outages by satellite, we expect to see great things over the next year in the region.


Clementine Fournier is the Regional Vice President for Africa at BICS, a telecoms service provider headquartered in Belgium.


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