By Prince Osuagwu
The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) last week came up with a report that developing countries risk missing out on the benefits of information technology because of their lack of broadband infrastructure.
UNCTAD made it clear that lack of broadband Internet access deprives countries of the possibility of building up offshoring industries. This paints a gloomy picture of â€˜no hiding placeâ€™ for Africa which broadband penetration is near zero level.
Africa, with a population of 960 million people, has a total of 280 million telephone subscribers, out of which, 260 million, representing over 85 percent are mobile cellular subscribers.
This makes Africa the continent with the highest ratio of total telephone subscribers of any region in the world. Yet, the continent also has the highest mobile cellular growth rate, achieving an average of almost 65 percent year on year.
However, what we gained in voice growth we lost at broadband access. Africa accounts for only seven percent of all fixed and mobile subscribers worldwide.
Meanwhile, the continent has some 50 million Internet users, representing just five percent internet penetration, while Europe Internet penetration is eight times higher.
But individual efforts of some companies including major projects from two Nigerian telecom companies, Nigeriaâ€™s Second National Carrier, Globacom and telecommunications infrastructure provider, MainOne, are raising hope of survival.
Globacom has caused the landing of a submarine cable project tagged Glo 1 in Nigeria and Ghana, promising to extend broadband services via the project to all other African countries at commercial launch.
The 9800km cable is coming from Bude in UK and connects Nigeria to the rest of West Africa and the UK. It has landing points in Nigeria, London and Lisbon in Portugal. It is deploying 16 branching units to connect countries in West Africa.
MainOne on its part had also caused the travel of another under sea cable from Feixal Portugal..
The 1.92 terabits per second capacity cable runs from Portugal into the coast of West Africa. It has landed in Nigeria and Ghana, and has a possibility of landing in more countries along the coast of West Africa to South Africa as regulatory policies and market opportunities at the region dictate.
These projects are expected to boost broadband penetration of Africa tremendously.
Yet, other efforts are springing up almost on daily basis. Hot on the heels of a number of other sub-Saharan cable systems, is the West African Cable System (Wacs). Agreement for this project was signed in Johannesburg by an international consortium of telecommunications operators.
The agreement lays out terms for the construction and maintenance of the R5.5-billion (US$600-million) submarine fibre-optic cable. A supply contract was signed at the same time, which puts the cable well on track for switch-on in February 2011.
Partners in the venture include Angola Telecom, British-owned Cable & Wireless, Telecom Namibia, Portugal Telecom, Congoâ€™s Sotelco, Togo Telecom, and South African companies MTN, Telkom, Vodacom, state-owned Broadband Infraco, and Tata Communications through Neotel among others.
The 14000km system is expected to operate on the open access principle, meaning that any service provider may use the system and this will increase competition between providers, to the ultimate advantage of the end user.
Even last week, Etisalat Nigeria, joined other 5 telecom operators, to pitch tent in a project called the ACE consortium which is rolling out a submarine cable system from France to South Africa. The new operators are Etisalat Nigeria, Expresso Telecom Group (Mauritania, Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria), Globalink (Sierra Leone), Mauritius Telecom, Office Congolais de Poste et Telecommunication (Democratic Republic of Congo) and Sierratel (Sierra Leone).
In addition, Baharicom Development Company, supported by the Nepadâ€™s (New Partnership for Africaâ€™s Development) eAfrica Commission of the African Union, joined ACE as a major partner in October, to jointly build the ACE system.
The ACE submarine cable system, which will be more than 14,000 km long, will be ready for service in 2011. The system will offer a minimum capacity of 1.92 Tbps.
It currently comprises 25 parties. If all the consortia could heighten activities, perhaps by 2011, broadband would have upstaged voice services and the continent would be better for it.
Broadband holds a lot of growth opportunities. Besides, it can fuel a wireless culture that can help to keep a city safe.
Broadband and a safe city
Ubiquitous broadband networks have not only proven to be an effective way of supporting the growing data, voice and video communications needs throughout an entire metropolitan area, they have become a critical element enabling the prevention of crime and rapid first response.
Just like Rick Rogers, Director, Alvarion put it, responsible government agencies and municipalities around the world are leveraging the power of broadband connectivity to embrace the safe city approach, with centralised emergency response and management in the face of threats, attack, crime or industrial scale accidents.
Safe city projects are municipal level network deployments whose specific goal is to enhance civilian safety.
Once this network is deployed, the municipality can enjoy the added value of utilising it to drive economic development, increase educational excellence, attract business investment, provide municipal services and ultimately improve quality of life for residents.
Rogers explains that wireless broadband networks are an ideal solution for safe city projects as they can complement existing wired infrastructure, or they can be utilised as the core access infrastructure for a safe city.
â€œWireless networking technologies are more scalable and flexible, overcoming the limitations of wired broadband in large areas. The same muni wireless networks that are ideal for safe city deployments offer compelling revenue generating opportunities, such as traffic control, transportation security, automatic meter reading, eservices for citizens and more.â€
Deploying safe city related wireless applications requires reliable network infrastructure with high capacity and low latency to ensure quality of video, data and voice applications. Existing wired networks, in many cases, were not designed to serve safe city bandwidth savvy applications, multiple new connections of wide scale deployment or deliver reliable mobility.
However, Rogers said that â€œthe necessary applications to deploy a safe city approach include public safety alarm and alert systems, video surveillance, intelligent traffic control, transportation security and access.
Other applications that enhance the quality of service a municipality provides, can also be provided over the same self_owned networkâ€.
Wireless technologies such as WiMAX address many of the requirements for safe city network deployments and applications because they can be deployed quickly and are very flexible.
Wireless broadband networks create a new and more efficient paradigm for public safety agencies to work together, save costs and optimise utilisation of existing manpower.
Wireless systems link disparate devices and systems of the safe city in a network that is independent of landline infrastructure.
This enables real time, mobile broadband access to critical databases, seamless voice services, live video feeds from geographically spread surveillance cameras and a host of other services in a single, reliable network, while easily supporting mobile broadband for officials on the_move. And that is where Africa should be from 2011.