Online video is driving the demand for faster internet in Africa

Africans are watching more on their phones
Africans are watching more on their phones
Image: Reuters/Akintunde Akinleye
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Slow or limited internet access in many African countries is still a major hurdle for everyone from ordinary consumers to small and mid-sized digital companies trying to grow innovative businesses.

African countries do not fare well when it comes to global internet speeds, as we noted last month. None of the 39 African countries ranked in a report achieved average speeds above 10 Mbps.

But things won’t stay that way for long. A review of African telecom infrastructure development in 2016 shows, in some cases, “staggering” leaps and bounds over previous years, according to telecoms analyst Steve Song.

His report highlights hundreds of millions of dollars investment in undersea cables being laid to connect more parts of the continent with the rest of the world, as well as more cables to regions that were already reasonably well-connected. The same rapid progress is happening with terrestrial backbone fiber developments. In 2015, Song tracked 19 fiber project announcements valued at a total of $730 million with over 22,000 km (12,427 miles) of fiber. Last year there were 26 announcements totaling $5.3 billion for a proposed 60,000 km of fiber. Song is quick to point out that a portion of this big jump may be down to double-counting from multiple re-announcements but there is little doubt of the trajectory here.

Most of the big investment has come from multilateral players like World Bank and African Development Bank and also from Chinese sources. In fact, the report says Chinese telecoms supplier Huawei is a big winner for several fiber contracts in Africa, as well French players in West Africa. Fiber to the home (FTTH) infrastructure is also on the rise particularly in Kenya and South Africa. There has also been more deployments of Wi-Fi services and the expansion of mobile LTE 4G services, as we’ve covered previously.

If there’s one overarching concern, it’s whether there’ll be enough demand to justify the growing supply. However, the inexorable rise in the popularity of streaming video content on everything from social networks to YouTube to Netflix means the demand is there and will continue to grow exponentially. That’s the bet the investors and telcos are making. It feels like a safe bet.