One of the lessons of working with remote teams on the African continent or traveling around Africa is that the internet is not the internet everywhere you go. It is true everyone has Google, Facebook and WhatsApp like elsewhere, but the quality and cost of connections varies widely depending on which city you live or visit. And, if you happen to live or work in many rural areas then you’re probably not reading this till you get to the nearest city.
To close these gaps and provide universal internet coverage for Africa’s fast-growing young population by 2030, the telecoms industry, governments, multilateral institutions, investors and development finance partners will need to invest over $100 billion over the next 10 years, according to a report by the Broadband for all Working Group. The 2030 target ties in with the UN’s sustainability development goals.
The group believes for a short-term target of doubling broadband connectivity by 2021 some 220 million Africans must come online for the first time—but only after investments of around $9 billion have been made. And it’s not just about expanding networks for new users since part of the challenge is to get more ordinary people to take advantage of existing broadband services by increasing awareness and improving affordability.
But ultimately it will take bringing an additional 1.1 billion Africans online to achieve universal access and the concern is that after years of rapid growth particularly in African urban areas there has been a “lack of progress” in further extending access and network coverage while affordability has also been declining in many countries.
The bulk of the $100 billion sum will see network operations and maintenance taking just over a half of expenses over the next 10 years, while the other big two are capital expenditure on infrastructure will account for $29.5 billion and $18 billion on ICT skills and content.
Today, mobile internet connectivity reaches around 70% of the population. But even when access reaches all urban areas there will still be some 100 million people in rural areas who need to be connected via a range of alternative means including satellite and wifi.
And yet, perhaps the most influential investment recommended would be the smallest. This was $2.4 billion to be spent over the next decade developing policies and regulations for governments to enable market conditions that support the development of the technology ecosystem and overall broadband affordability.
“Governments can help with policies enabling new technologies, new business models and investment,” said Doreen Bogdan-Martin, director of ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau in a press statement. “The right policies will, in turn, provide the private sector with the incentives to build out infrastructure and explore new technologies and applications that will drive demand.”
However, the affordability and quality of service issue remains a pain point that affects ordinary consumers and entrepreneurs alike across Africa.
Quartz Africa Innovator 2019 honoree, Odunayo Eweniyi, co-founder of PiggyVest, a Lagos-based fintech startup, emphasized the huge gap between what ordinary Africans earn and the relative cost of internet access when she spoke at the launch of the report during the World Bank fall meetings in Washington D.C. this week. Eweniyi was also concerned with the poor connection speeds and overall inconsistent quality. “I do enjoy the numbers quoted, 30% of Africans are online—but are we though?”
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