In the past decade, information and communication technologies such as high-speed connectivity have been a catalyst to Africa’s socio-economic development efforts.
This week’s commercial launch of the 14 000km long West Africa Cable System (Wacs) fibre-optic submarine cable in Cape Town will effectively raise our continent’s international capacity by over 500 gigabytes per second, making this cable Africa’s latest, and powerful, socio-economic enabler.
Wacs links South Africa to Europe and the UK, and brings much-needed broadband access to Africa, touching millions of lives on the continent along the way.
With landing sites in countries such as Angola, Namibia, Cameroon, Nigeria, Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, Wacs will provide diversity for large-volume broadband traffic from various Southern and West African countries to Europe.
Broadband technology has a major impact on poverty and unemployment, with today’s everyday business heavily reliant on the web to remain competitive.
The World Bank has found that every 10 percent broadband penetration in low and middle-income countries accelerates economic growth by 1.38 percent.
For this reason, the advancement of broadband technology and infrastructure is a key focus area in the development of emerging economies.
In Africa, where we still find some of the poorest countries globally, where 40 percent of the population continues to live below the poverty line of $1.25 (R9.99) a day, such benefits cannot be overlooked.
The International Telecommunication Union/Unesco Broadband Commission’s 2011 report on “Broadband: A platform for progress”, has established a link between the rollout of a broadband network and economic growth.
The primary example used was that of the European Commission, which estimates that the rollout of broadband can result in an increase of at least E636 billion (R6.6 trillion) in gross domestic product (GDP), and the creation of 2 million jobs in Europe by 2015. It has also found that in Brazil, broadband has added 1.4 percent to the employment growth rate.
High capacity infrastructure like Wacs enables cheaper, more inclusive broadband access, which supports a host of products and services that have the potential to change the way we live and do business.
In the developing world, where anti-poverty programmes are either small or nonexistent, the internet has allowed NGOs, telecommunication operators, and governments to bridge the social, economic, and physical isolation of the poor.
In countries like Uganda and Ghana, the internet has helped to more effectively link farmers with markets, getting rid of the often costly, intermediaries.
Courtesy of the evolution of technology, in some markets, farmers accessing the internet via solar panels and satellites, for the latest information about weather, soil testing, and other factors that increase productivity.
E-commerce and mobile banking services are proving popular with Africa’s rising mobile telephony users. These services are particularly significant in developing markets, where access to conventional means of conducting financial transactions remain limited.
For example, MTN Mobile Money and similar offerings across the continent continue to enjoy phenomenal uptake.
In less than three years, MTN Mobile Money has more than 6 million customers in 13 markets.
The Broadband Commission for Digital Development lists health care as “potentially one of the most important areas where broadband can make an impact.” It is estimated that more than $5 trillion is spent globally on improving health care. In Africa, where resources are incredibly limited, and less than 50 percent of the continent has access to health-care facilities, there’s a dire need for alternatives.
With increasing access to mobile phones on the continent, and indeed most emerging economies, tele-medicine or m-health solutions are fast proving the alternative. M-Health solutions allow for medical advice, monitoring, diagnosis and training online, or via telephone. This not only enables for greater access to health care, but can also drastically reduce health care provision costs.
Over and above these, the plethora of benefits that access to broadband presents include assisting with training and education through e-learning facilities, and enabling faster more efficient service delivery, through online services. It will also encourage technological innovation through the design of applications that are specific to South Africa and Africa.
Already, the introduction of submarine cables Teams and Eassy solutions has seen as much as a 93 percent broadband delivery cost reduction, and stimulated an increase of more than 400 percent in broadband capacity utilisation in markets across South and East Africa since 2009. Although subscriptions to mobile networks are increasing in the rest of the continent, a penetration of less that 1 percent illustrates the challenges that persist in increasing access to high-speed, high capacity and internet access in Africa.
Wacs, therefore, will go a long way towards helping whet Africa’s growing appetite for data, through growing demands for innovative products and services.
Last year, the information and communications technology industry competitiveness and job creation compact, approved by the South African government last year, committed to a 100 percent broadband penetration by 2020.
Mobile broadband will play an important role in meeting these targets and the provision of Wacs is a significant leap towards providing the infrastructure needed to meet that commitment.
The impact of cable investments in Africa is far reaching. For example, MTN introduced data connectivity to Africa, similar to that enjoyed by other global regions, which resulted in the increase in access to broadband from 5 percent to over 10 percent in four years. MTN is the largest investor in Wacs, with over $100 million committed in the cable system.
It’s our belief that Wacs will bring much-needed broadband capacity to the continent, and significantly bolster Africa’s efforts to achieve the UN’s Millennium Development Goals to bridge the digital divide and enable millions to access the internet and with it essential services that will propel the continent into the digital age.
Karel Pienaar is chief executive MTN South Africa