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Africa rings in the changes.

Africa is on the brink of a telecommunications renaissance. This was the verdict of some 6,000 delegates who attended the Africa Telecom '98 conference in Johannesburg recently.

Africa's growing need for telecommunications links came under the spotlight recently as the continent played host to one of the largest telecommunications events ever to be staged there. Some 6,000 people from 40 countries converged in Johannesburg for the Africa Telecom '98 conference organised by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), to discuss the challenges facing the world's least developed continent.

"Africa is truly on the brink of a renaissance. Continuing economic progress depends on continued progress in communications and telecommunication development," Dr. Pekka Tarjanne, secretary-general of the ITU said. "With continuing financial instability and uncertainty in Asia, Africa could well turn out to be the region of the world that grows fastest this year."

Until recently, Africa's telecommunication development has lagged far behind that of the rest of the world. There are an estimated 12m phones in all of sub-Saharan Africa less than in the city of Tokyo - five million of which are in South Africa. According to ITU's African Telecommunication Indicators report published recently, in several countries including Malawi, Swaziland, Sierra Leone and Tanzania, would-be telephone users have to wait more than 10 years to be connected. 'Even with the most optimistic assumptions, fewer than one in 50 Africans will have direct telephone access by the end of the decade,' the report concludes.

Africa's demand for basic telephone services is far outstripping existing physical capacity. "The majority of the African continent is bursting with the need to communicate, yet the infrastructure is not there," said Bradley P. Holmes, executive vice-president of the CTR group. The real challenge facing governments is to generate enough resources to meet the demand. However, "Africa remains a huge untapped market for telecommunications and information technologies," South African President Nelson Mandela told the meeting. "Like other emerging markets, it presents huge opportunities for investors. The investment needs of this rapidly expanding sector cannot be met by the public sector alone."

For change to occur, the private sector has to be encouraged to invest in the continent. Yet, of the $95bn raised world-wide for telecoms privatisation in the last four years only $1.7bn was directed at Africa - and again, most of that was for South Africa.

Despite the fundamental obstacles to development, a report from the ITU shows that phone lines in Africa managed to grow by 10% last year - the highest annual growth rate within the last few years. This growth has been mainly driven by the privatised companies. If this trend continues the report says, the 1996 figure of 13.7m main telephone lines could double by 2003. The countries which have experienced the highest growth are Cote d'Ivoire, Guinea, Ghana, Senegal and South Africa - all have managed to attract outside investment in their telecoms privatisation. So far, local investors have been elusive.

"Privatisation may be more accepted in the region if the public were allowed to buy shares," said Michael Minges at the Telecommunications Development Bureau, ITU.

During the conference there were encouraging signs that African politicians are beginning to take the initiative in this area. Five heads of African states announced that they would be supporting key telecommunications reforms. These reforms aim to catapult Africa into the information age. Egypt, Senegal, Ghana, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe committed their countries to prioritising telecoms development and forging an African telecommunications plan. The ministers have pledged to meet all the objectives by June 1, 2000.

President Mandela emphasised that a new vision was required for African telecoms, based on the right of universal access to telecoms and the need for a massive investment in human resources. He suggested setting up a dedicated African telecommunications fund, which would finance the infrastructural projects needed to extend telephony to every village in Africa.

New technologies

Because of Africa's poor legacy of telecoms infrastructure, many countries in the region have been able to leap-frog into using new technologies, instead of waiting for fixed lines to be installed. Services such as cellular, satellite and the Internet can be installed quickly and cheaply and can enhance access where the fixed line network has been extensively damaged or ignored.

Until a few years ago, only a handful of countries had cellular services, but now virtually the whole continent has some kind of mobile telephone system in place. The continent has over two million cellular subscribers, the majority of these in South Africa. In the past two years, 15 private operators have set up in the region and more mobile licences are due to be awarded this year.

At present most of Africa's cellular systems are state-owned but foreign investors are increasingly setting up new networks. Telkom Malaysia is a part-owner of the cellular network in Malawi, while Sweden's Telia is involved in Namibia. France Telecom is the majority owner of Societe Ivoirienne de Mobiles in the Cote d'Ivoire, part owner of the Senegalese digital networks and it recently won a licence in Botswana. There is still room for additional private investment in the cellular sector - in countries that still do not have cellular networks and in those that have only one licensed operator.

Another wireless technology which is proving popular in the continent is wireless local loop (WLL), which is another way cellular technology can be used to extend access. WLL is cheaper than mobile cellular and can be installed more quickly than fixed line. A growing number of countries in the region are installing WLL, including Benin, Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa.


Just as digital networks are connecting people within Africa, satellite and fibre-optic links are being used to connect Africa with the rest of the world. Africa's connectivity to the global telecommunications network is poised to increase dramatically in the next couple of years, with the announcement of several large projects. During the conference the US communications company WorldSpace said it would invest $500m in the continent over the next three years. The company, which makes radio broadcasting systems, said it would launch a satellite over Africa in October this year, potentially allowing all Africans to receive its signal. "We plan to have five million receivers in Africa in the next five years, which will allow the continent to receive news, entertainment and other programming with the quality of FM and the availability of medium wave," Sam Holt, WorldSpace vice-president said.

While geostationary (GEO) satellites have served as the predominant links between Africa and the rest of the world in the past, fibre-optic submarine cables are now complementing and even replacing these services. The SAT-2 submarine cable which connects South Africa to Europe, the US, and South America recently increased South Africa's capacity, giving higher quality to the network.

A number of other organisations have announced plans to improve Africa's international connectivity over the coming years. Telkom and several partners have announced the South Africa Far East (SAFE) project, which will connect Cape Town with Mauritius, Diego Garcia and Penang, Malaysia by 2000. Project Oxygen, proposed by the CTR, will integrate parts of Africa into a global network and AT&T's Africa One aims to connect 41 landing points in Africa with Italy and Saudi Arabia by 2000. All of these projects hope to expand connections in and across sub-Saharan Africa by using local carriers' terrestrial fibre, digital microwave and existing satellite facilities.


The Internet has spread rapidly through Africa over the last 18 months. In May 1996, only 16 countries had full Internet access. Now 44 of the 56 counties and territories on the continent are on-line. The top 12 countries with the largest Internet markets are Cote d'Ivoire, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, Mozambique, Senegal, Tanzania, Tunisia, Uganda, Zimbabwe and South Africa.

However only 1.4% of the continent's 700m populace uses the Internet and about 700,000 of Africa's estimated one million users live in South Africa.
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Title Annotation:growth of the telecommunications industry in Africa
Author:Carr, Julie
Publication:African Business
Date:Jun 1, 1998
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