AfricaCom-336x280

2017 AfricaCom Conference Review

About the event

The annual AfricaCom event was held at the Cape Town International Convention Centre (CTICC) from 7-9 November 2017, with a line-up of global thought leaders who provided interesting insights on future technology trends and market developments in Africa. The event also offered a good networking platform for industry players and essential learning opportunities. The event also marked 20 years of AfricaCom, which has become the largest ICT event on the continent.

A summary of key discussion points and take-ways from the conference is provided below.

New trends

M-commerce was notably among the disruptive technologies that were under the spotlight at the event and is expected to be far more “disruptive” than PC-based e-commerce ever was. In the next 6 years Africa is expected to lead digital solutions, with companies with clear digital strategy expected to lead the market. Among the key messages delivered at the event was the need to encourage local manufacturing companies to take a leadership position in the region. Other notable topics that were discussed included Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, Smart Cities, Digital Health, SDN & VFN, and Blockchain.

A growing trend is that of governments trying to recreate monopolies in the market, instead of creating an enabling environment for competition to thrive and intervene in markets such as rural areas, where it often does not make economic sense for private sector companies to invest. This is coupled with a growing practice by governments of treating telecoms sector businesses as cash cows. Some of the operators claim that as much as 60% of their revenues are taken by governments. The key message from the operators on this issue was that ICT should not cross-subsidise other industries, so that revenues generated in the ICT sector can be reinvested to further sector development and innovation.

A single national network model, such as the WOAN proposed by the South African government, also came under scrutiny, with operators sharing a common view that this model could be harmful for the telecoms sector. Furthermore, market regulators need to be educated on a continuous basis, in order to be able to regulate very dynamic markets effectively.

IoT and high data costs

The issue of data costs was very topical. From an operator point of view, the cost of operating a telecommunications network remains very high in many markets across Africa. Lack of proper utility infrastructure negatively impacts the operational efficiencies of telecoms operators, which in turn results in higher retail prices of data than the public and the state would like to see. Moreover, there is also the question of economic principle, with operators in most markets opting to charge for data what they can, if not constrained by regulation. More can be done in terms of trying to reduce the retail price of data to benefit users. Operators such as Safaricom (Kenya) are reviewing their data charge models to see how prices could be reduced further.

However, other operators are of the view that MNOs no longer generate large profits as they had done in the past, largely due to competition from the OTTs who have negatively impacted the price of voice services. Decreasing voice revenues do not leave the operators with much room to move when it comes to lowering prices of other products (such as data).

A panel discussion on IoT resulted in a call to use IoT to transform the telecoms industry. IoT will also help businesses to be more efficient. Africa is expected to benefit considerably from IoT, particularly in sectors such as mining, transport, tourism, health and energy. As such, security around IoT platforms needs to become a priority.

The journey to 5G

3G is expected to continue carrying most of the traffic in Africa as the technology lifespan is usually 20 years. Most operators in Africa began 3G deployment 5 to 10 years ago. However, operators should not be rolling out 2G and 3G networks in isolation. As we enter the new era of high speed connectivity, when 5G eventually arrives, the technology is expected to drive real convergence. It is believed that in the next six years, the world will be ready for 5G, with the first subscriptions expected to start early in 2022. Africa is expected to reach 2 million 5G subscriptions by the end of 2023. However, the predicted commercial launch of 5G services could be brought forward, given that by the end of 2017 the first phase of 5G standard will be completed. This will allow early adopters to launch commercial offerings, particularly in the developed markets.

Some of the speakers at the event believe that Wireless-to-the-Home technology will drive connectivity globally and not fibre, as many anticipate. Nonetheless, the deployment of fibre will continue to be essential, as it does serve specific needs in the market more effectively than wireless technologies.

Bridging the digital divide

On the need to connect Africa’s next billion, a study revealed that of the 240 countries that were part of the study, some 104 do not have broadband strategy. For African countries to grow their GDPs, they need to prioritise broadband rollout. The example of Singapore was given, which came from a historically low ICT ranking to become one of the leading countries globally by prioritising broadband rollout. Currently, Africa contributes less than 5% of the global GDP and 75% of the people on the continent do not have smartphones. Moreover, 50% of the people in Africa are still serviced exclusively by 2G networks. Several initiatives are being undertaken by various companies to bridge the digital divide in Africa. These include:

  • SmartWIFI – The hotspot service is intended to bring WiFi to rural areas, enabling retailers, hospitality establishments, petrol stations, as well as healthcare centres or schools to become a connectivity point and a digital gateway to opportunity for the surrounding population. Access can be extended to several kilometres through off-the-shelf Wi-Fi repeaters.

Project Loon – A network of balloons located at the edge of space is designed to extend Internet connectivity to people in rural and remote areas worldwide at an affordable cost. If successfully rolled out across the African continent, Project Loon has the potential to assist countries with low Internet population coverage to achieve nation-wide coverage. Connection signal is transmitted up to the nearest balloon from  a telecommunications partner on the ground, relayed across the balloon network, and then back down to users on the ground. The demonstrated data transmission speed between balloons over 100 km apart in the stratosphere and back to earth (directly to LTE devices) is up to 10Mbps.

  • The Express Wi-Fi initiative will be expanded through a partnership with Facebook in Nigeria, with the goal of connecting more people to the Internet in a cost-efficient way. Express Wi-Fi in Nigeria is focused in areas where people gather and work, including markets, cafés and public outdoor spaces.

Creating an enabling environment

African countries are encouraged to start educating rural communities, empowering them to use devices to enable growth. However, lack of access to the Internet, lack of local content, lack of spectrum, lack of affordability (costly devices) and a poor demand side (due to lack of proper education, particularly in rural areas) are some of the key issues that are contributing to the current digital divide in many parts of Africa.

Furthermore, governments are urged by the operators to create enabling environments to support innovation in Sub-Saharan Africa. For their part, some of the state governments in Africa are already taking steps to improve ICT penetration and use it as a socio-economic enabler. Examples include:

  • Namibia – Currently, Internet penetration is around 50% of the population but the country has declared access to the Internet a basic human right and wants to achieve 100% population coverage in the next two years. New investment initiatives should be announced soon.
  • South Africa – The Ministry of Telecommunications and Postal Services is urging operators to consider bridging the digital divide through the greater use of satellite broadband services, with satellite technology offering far wider coverage than terrestrial networks. It is disappointing that of the 100 satellites to have been launched globally in 2017, only five will have been launched by African states. There needs to be greater focus on the use of satellite technology in Africa.
  • Zimbabwe – The government is the biggest spender on ICT in the country and intends to accelerate mobile network deployment. The government has interest in 2 out of the 3 MNOs operating in the country. New policies have been introduced, which will encourage infrastructure sharing between the operators.

To reduce the cost of communication, initiatives such as uniform roaming charges between operators in an economic community such as SADC and joint infrastructure investment by operators should be encouraged.