The number of mobile subscribers in Africa experienced a dramatic increase between 2000 and 2016, growing from 17 million users to 380 million. However, still only 35% of Africa’s 1.3 billion people have access to the internet. The prevailing digital divide can largely be attributed to a severe fiber access deficit on the continent. In 2014, fixed line penetration in Africa stood at less than one percent. Strides have been made when it comes to undersea cable development, though, with new projects that introduce a 20x increase to bandwidth reaching Africa from other regions. But, it’s important to keep in mind that there are limited mechanisms to distribute that capacity to inland communities.
Fortunately, high profile international entities have flowed investment into Africa for fiber build-outs in response to booming demand for access. Google, for instance, spun off its Project Link into an independent company, CSquared, so it can operate as a regional wholesale fiber operator. In 2017, demand for streaming services like Netflix increased dramatically, spurring carriers to embark on fiber-to-the-home initiatives. Delivering connectivity to meet these soaring demands not only provides accessibility to underserved populations – allowing them access to vital medical, educational, governmental and financial resources – but it’s also proven to be profitable. International telcos – for example Vodafone, Airtel and Etisalat –launched ventures in Africa and all currently yield a profit.
Even though demand has attracted development that’s proven its ROI, developing fiber networks in Africa comes with many challenges, especially for non-carrier entities that are developing their own networks to ensure security and control over their data. Unfortunately, over the past few years, fiber rollouts have been the target of crime, theft and even violent hijacking attempts. With security being at the forefront, it’s always a best practice to use pre-connected cables that don’t require splicing and the valuable equipment that would be required to do so. Additionally, with severe climate conditions outside of Africa’s primary connectivity hubs, fiber must be protected to withstand a diverse array of climate conditions. Therefore, it is advised to adhere to the most stringent compliance standards for outside deployments to guarantee you’re protected, even in harshest conditions.
In Sub-Saharan, where the bulk of development is occurring, the typical firm experiences an average of 8.5 power outages per month, according to the World Bank. Fiber operators can mitigate downtime by powering their networks with gear that has built-in redundancies. Small footprints, too, are desired and available in compact models requiring only 1RU, minimizing power usage and making the most efficient use of critical space. It’s equally important that optical gear driving the connectivity features multiple levels of security to prevent any adversarial attempts, either physically or virtually.
Additionally, with civil costs accounting for 80% of an overall network build, it’s prudent to minimize cost elsewhere, notably on the operational side. Much of the optical gear on the market requires certified experts to install and operate. Not only are these professionals expensive, they are hard to come by on a continent where the fiber market is still very much in its infancy. Fortunately, there are optical solutions that can be deployed and managed by router/switch technicians and do not require certified optical engineers. These types of systems, where the complexity has been removed, are ideal in helping to reduce deployment and operating expenses.
With severe terrestrial network limitations, developers and operators must leverage an assortment of new and legacy infrastructure. This means that a variety of transport mediums, speeds and services are leveraged concurrently, on a single network, in order to optimize coverage. In fact, operators in Africa frequently engage in “capacity swaps” and share network and cable capacity to achieve redundancy via diverse routes where possible. It’s therefore absolutely critical that the optical gear employed can seamlessly mesh together with an amalgamation of different technologies and speeds.
For a deeper dive into this topic, check out the Connect-World article, “Overcoming challenges to building private fiber networks in Africa”, written by XKL’s very own Chief Systems Architect, Dr. Chad Lamb.