Economic View


On connecting Kenya and the continent as a whole

What have been the biggest challenges to rolling out international cables across Africa?

CLATTERBUCK: The first challenge is coming up with a design and solution that helps overcome a fundamental market requirement, be that needed capacity, additional diversity or access to new geographies. The next obstacle is acquiring funding. The SEACOM Subsea Cable System up the east coast of Africa, for instance, is a private venture that was fully funded by SEACOM and its shareholders. Apart from the SEACOM Subsea Cable System and Main One in Nigeria, all other undersea cables in Africa are consortium-based systems. Getting this agreement with all involved parties takes time and adds significant costs to cable systems. This downside is usually offset by the fact that it is as a shared investment and thus offers individual telecoms firms much lower investment risk.

The next step is to survey to confirm the cable’s routing and landing points, and approvals are needed from any country in which the cable lands including any waters that it passes through. Once these are done then formal approvals and licences are needed to actually implement construction, which usually takes two to three years. These complexities make undersea cable development a long and capital-intensive process.

Cable systems are a physical investment, which require a lot of planning and certainty that regulations or market conditions will not change. Fortunately, Kenya is a liberal market with clear regulations and laws, making this less of a risk for large subsea cable investments. The country also has a healthy ICT industry and adequate competition for terrestrial fibre and services, and enjoys a high internet penetration as a result.

How can last-mile connectivity be improved?

CLATTERBUCK: With the rollout and continual upgrade of capacity on international subsea cables the question is how to make use of that capacity and get it to the people and organisations that want to use it. At first we were not seeing the uptake necessary to propel penetration or bring down costs in broadband internet services. Subsea links always drive the front end of penetration. Many African nations are still developing, and therefore do not have the same basic terrestrial infrastructure as other markets, which initially limited the speed of terrestrial fibre builds and thus broadband uptake. Now we are seeing acceleration in data usage and internet uptake driven through mobile handsets due to 3G and 4G technologies, as well as more broadband offerings to commercial and residential areas.

Telecoms firms recognise the growing need for high-data capability, and are also developing fibre networks to be the backbone of their mobile distribution points, which is driving this increase in data and internet consumption. It is not only fibre but also the electronics involved that are important in developing high-speed terrestrial networks. Neglecting this has been the mistake of some infrastructure providers, who have now had to reinvest in basic infrastructure that is more big-data capable. With the right fibre, more bandwidth can be distributed.

What are the trends driving bandwidth consumption?

CLATTERBUCK: Video downloads and live streaming are obvious primary contributors to consumption growth, mostly through consumers. Cloud-based consumption and virtualised services are other drivers at the enterprise level. These drivers will only continue to accelerate as more consumers use the internet and businesses look to become more efficient through digitalisation and cloud-based computing.

As the use of the internet and “always on” connectivity becomes more ubiquitous, partnerships and redundant paths become more important, as they mitigate any downtime on a single network element. Network service providers are in prime position to benefit from this trend while at the same time challenged to make sure their networks live up to growing expectations.

How are enterprise solutions being adopted in Kenya?

CLATTERBUCK: It takes time for companies to think about adopting enterprise solutions over the cloud, and it almost has to be done at the CEO level. Africa is leapfrogging technologies and moving to virtual solutions without stopping at on-site solutions, so some of the trepidation of moving onto the cloud might be more easily managed.