Affordable broadband for Africa: A dream that can be realised

Paul Garnett
Paul Garnett, Director of Affordable Access Initiatives at Microsoft.

Africa can achieve affordable and widespread broadband access, if the public sector takes the lead in creating a competitive environment, and partners with private organisations to stimulate capital spending on necessary infrastructure.

There is a polytechnic university in Koforidua, a mid-sized town in Ghana, about a three hour drive from Accra. It was opened in 1997 but being in a second-tier market, it was only in May 2014 that the campus and surrounding hostels had low-cost connectivity to the internet. That was when TV white spaces (TVWS) technology first arrived in Ghana, using unused portions of wireless spectrum, generally set aside for television transmission, to bring high-speed and low-cost wireless broadband to over 8 500 students, faculty and staff.

Eight months later, the National Communications Authority of Ghana (NCA) issued a commercial licence. It allowed an Internet Service Provider (ISP), SpectraLink Wireless, to use this TVWS technology to deliver internet access to the mass market. This means that students can now purchase data bundles and use pay-as-you go cloud services like Office 365 to be more productive.  With the support of the UT Bank, students can also buy their own affordable devices through interest-free loans.

The NCA became the first regulator in Africa to issue such a licence, and is now looking at developing regulations that will enable any ISP to use TVWS to deliver low-cost Internet access. This is in a continent where the average monthly flat-rate for a mobile subscription in Africa is USD $20 and the average salary is USD $2 per day

The state of internet access in Africa
The story of Koforidua sheds an important light on the state of internet access in Africa. Although the internet first arrived on the continent in the early 1990s, over two decades later 89% of African households still do not have access to the internet, according to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).

Why is this? The reason boils down to three interrelated factors:
– Regulations that undermine competitive entry
– Limited sources of low-cost capital to fuel investment
– The high cost of basic infrastructure

Internet connectivity in sub-Saharan Africa is currently the most expensive in the world. According to ITU data, of the ten most expensive countries for wired connections, eight are in sub-Saharan Africa.

Because of high costs, fixed and mobile broadband internet providers find it economically unviable to provide affordable last-mile internet access. This leaves customers in outlying areas and small markets, such as Koforidua, unserved.

The need for a more competitive market, balanced regulations and public-private partnerships
It’s well known that governments need to collaborate with businesses and other stakeholders to bring widespread broadband access to Africa. As a first step, governments must create a stable regulatory and policy environment. This includes:

– Ensure sufficient spectrum and access to bandwidth is available for all existing and new market players

– Provide access to high-capacity backbone infrastructure, such as fibre networks, to all broadband service providers

– Provide universal service funds, tax breaks and loans for all new market entrants

– Increase licensed and license-exempt access to high-value frequencies above and below 1 GHz, such as TVWS

By creating an enabling regulatory environment, healthy and open competition will be encouraged. Entrepreneurs and new market entrants will have the room to innovative low-cost internet access solutions.

TVWS, for example, works to provide an extension of coverage that is not currently commercial for mobile and other network operators – now giving them the opportunity to work with that extension and offer data services.

The transition from analogue to digital broadcast will also increase the amount of unassigned UHF and VHF broadcast frequencies that could be made available for TV white space access.

Our experiences demonstrate that such partnerships can significantly increase digital and social inclusion, enabling governments to address core priorities around education, healthcare, and small business empowerment.

Africa’s growth in mobile subscriptions is unmatched and predicted to hit one billion by the end of 2015. If we work together, our growth in internet access could soon mirror this, and the internet’s share of Africa’s GDP could exceed USD 300 billion by 2025, making the continent not only mobile-first, but cloud-first.

By Paul Garnett, Director of Affordable Access Initiatives at Microsoft