Internet penetration rates in Africa are disparate on the one hand, very low compared to the world average, but on the other hand, they presage an ineluctably important development in the years to come. Here is Internet in Africa: Diagnosis and Perspectives.
Can Africa reach universal internet access?
Over the past decade, African leaders working with various local and international partners have made great strides in making the internet accessible for the continent’s 1.4 billion people.
But — with just 22% internet connectivity — the continent remains significantly behind other world regions.
IT experts have long argued that the cost of data is too high for most people. In addition, lack of digital skills and literacy remains a stumbling block for many, particularly those living in rural areas.
Africa will require an investment totaling $100 billion (€86 billion) to plug every citizen into the internet by 2030, according to a World Bank estimate. Internet penetration rates in Africa are disparate and very low compared to the world average
“Let us be clear: No single actor will be able to meet Africa’s 2030 target and carry the burden of a $100 billion investment funding requirement alone,” Hafez Ghanem, the World Bank’s vice president for Eastern and Southern Africa, said on the bank’s website. He added that all stakeholders must strive to ensure that every African has affordable and reliable access to the internet.
In October, US tech giant Google announced that it intends to invest $1 billion in Africa over the next five years. The massive funds will ensure access to fast and affordable internet and support startups to aid the continent’s digital transformation. Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and Uganda will be the prime beneficiaries.
Abdul Rahaman Nayuni, from the Yunyoo community of northern Ghana, can attest to that. “If you don’t monitor the internet, you wouldn’t know there is an opportunity somewhere. Now I can sit in my room every morning, go to the job opportunity platforms and see if anything is going on in Ghana,” he said.
Perspectives of the Internet in Africa
Internet penetration rates in Africa presage an ineluctably important development in the years to come. According to experts, the number of Internet users will grow fastest in Africa and the Middle East. “The Middle East and Africa will see the fastest growth in Internet usage, at 4.0% this year (2022), and has the most room for improvement. By 2022, only 29.8 percent of the region’s population will be online, compared to 89.2 percent in North America,” reads the findings of a study by an expert firm.
Several sectors of activity should benefit mechanically from the growth in the number of Internet users. Thus, according to a study by the American firm Digital TV Research, streaming and video on demand will generate $1.66 billion in Africa in 2027, compared to $623 million in 2021.
Driven by a rapidly growing population of more than 1 billion people with a median age of about 20 years, sub-Saharan Africa has seen a mobile penetration rate of 46% by 2020 and as such represents a large market for telecom companies that also market the internet. The Global System Operators’ Association (GSMA) estimates that telecom operators will invest $45.2 billion in the mobile network in sub-Saharan Africa by 2025. The telecom market has been growing at an accelerated rate of 30% per year over the past five years. It must be said that internet usage in this region of the world has accelerated further with the advent of social networks and more recently with the health crisis. If it generates a lot of income, the telecommunications field remains a strategic field for the States as shown by this statement of Ren Zhengfei, founder of Huawei: “Telecommunications are a matter of national security. For a nation, not having its own equipment in this field is like not having an army.
The battle over 5G in Africa
African Countries are increasingly engaged in their digital transition by covering their territory with broadband as a development issue. Launched for the 1st time on August 25, 2018 in South Africa and followed by Nigeria in January 2022, 5G is still in its infancy in sub-Saharan Africa and represents in this sense a structuring issue for their economy and industry. Investments in this technology are made through telecom operators who aim to expand their service offering. Their field of conquest covers, among other things, the sale of terminals, the equipment of telecommunication companies’ platforms, the construction of networks and relays, the laying of fiber optic submarine cables or the deployment of backbones. In this sense, they are already fighting a war in the conquest of national markets. In view of the colossal costs and specific infrastructures required for the development of 5G, these telecom operators are teaming up and collaborating with international suppliers who more or less represent national or regional interests against a backdrop of economic rivalry between China and the United States. The main suppliers of telecom equipment in Africa are “Nokia” and “Ericsson” for the European Union, then “Huawei” and “ZTE” for China.
The battle over 5G in sub-Saharan Africa follows that of 4G. If it takes place between telecom companies established in sub-Saharan Africa (Vodacom, Rain, Orange, MTN, Airtel, Moov, etc.) through licenses granted by the States, it is also on the ground of geopolitical rivalry between European countries represented mainly by Nokia, Ericsson, Alcatel … and China represented by “Huawei” and “ZTE. This technological rivalry, which has been taking place for several years on European territory, is now moving to African territory.
African leaders are concerned about the limits that would be imposed on African economies against the backdrop of rivalry between the United States and China. The Chinese technology giants, established in more than sixty countries, already provide about 70% of the 4G network on the continent and is naturally positioned as a leader in 5G. Huawei has thus become a key player in Africa to such an extent that the U.S. sanctions against the integrity of the Chinese giant, since May 2019 seemed not to impact the confidence of its African partners. However, the U.S. sanctions against Huawei have put a damper on the plans of several major internet providers across the African continent. Major African telecom companies with financial ties to Western countries have begun to diversify their partnerships.
Telecom equipment manufacturers, regardless of their affiliation, also claim this proximity to African governments. Over the past 15 years, all have signed numerous contracts with various governments.
On June 15, 2020, Ericsson finalized an agreement with the African Telecommunications Union (ATU) on the efficient deployment of broadband on the continent. Ericsson has thus positioned itself as a privileged partner of more than 25 countries in the deployment of 5G. The European equipment manufacturer thus took a lead over its Chinese rival by becoming the preferred partner of regulators and operators to facilitate the adoption of its technology.
It was quickly overtaken in June 2021 by Huawei, which also signed a partnership agreement with ATU, and then by Nokia on September 15, 2021.
Although requiring significant investment, the availability of 5G is however hampered by the poor coverage of telecom networks on the continent, a still expensive broadband access and a weak digital transformation of countries. Beyond the technology that can be provided by European or Chinese equipment manufacturers, African countries have difficulty following the line advocated by Washington, its allies and continue to do business with Chinese companies because these countries receive significant support in terms of economic aid from China. In this information war and even economic war between the United States and China, the control of 5G is a key weapon in the sense that this technology allows the control of data including sensitive data, given the rise of the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence. For China, winning the African market is part of a broader strategy to weaken Western power and strengthen its current position. However, it can be said that this battle is far from being won by one side, as 5G technology is still in its infancy in sub-Saharan Africa.
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