Connect Africa on track

By Damaria Senne, ITWeb senior journalist
Cairo, 14 May 2008

The Connect Africa initiative is on track - since its launch in October 2007 - to meet its target to connect over one billion people by 2012.

This was announced at ITU Telecoms Africa 2008, taking place in Cairo this week.

According to Gabriel Solomon, GSM Association (GSMA) director of government and regulatory affairs, the mobile industry has invested in infrastructure to extend coverage to reach an additional 550 000 square kilometres.

This area is occupied by 46 million people, and is the equivalent size of France, he said. It took the operators one year to do something it took France 10 years to accomplish, he said.

Mobile connections also increased by 70 million, to 282 million, due to the increased infrastructure investment, he noted. "The Connect Africa initiative is delivering on its promises."

Last October, the GSMA announced its industry members planned to invest $50 billion between 2008 and 2012 in networks in Africa, covering 90% of the population.

"The broadening coverage and the falling cost of mobile communications are enabling tens of millions of Africans to become connected for the first time in their lives," he said.

The Global VSAT Forum, which was not part of the official media briefing, also made an unexpected announcement that it would invest $20 billion in satellite capacity to support Connect Africa.

African New Skies, a satellite manufacturer, said it would deploy two new satellites in Africa in the next couple of years. Details of the satellite investments will be provided in due course, said Yves Feltes, African News Skies media relations VP.

Additional financing also includes an 8.5 million euro financial commitment by the African Development Bank, to fund research on harmonising regulatory policies in Africa, said Sami Al Basheer Al Morshid, director of the ITU's Telecommunication Development Bureau.

The government of Spain has also committed $1.5 million to fund ICT capacity-building in Spanish-speaking African countries, he said.

These initiatives include developing a centre of excellence and setting up Internet training centres.

Getting more

According to the GSMA, investors would have put 25% more resources into the initiative if the regulatory environment in Africa had been more enabling.

While there is progress in liberalising Egypt's telecoms environment, there are countries that still make mobile services unaffordable for citizens, commented Solomon.

He also called for regulators across the continent to follow the recommendations made by the ITU to allocate spectrum in the lower bands (under 900MHz) to mobile services. This will increase operators' capacity to connect under-serviced areas, he said.

Great expectations

Romain Murenzi, Rwanda's minister for science, technology, scientific research and ICT, argued that it made strong economic sense to invest in ICT, as this translates into greater GDP contributions.

Last year, the Rwandan government gave 50 000 handsets to farmers, he said. The farmers are expected to pay $2 per month for the service.

From the use of these handsets, the government expects to bring $7 million to $10 million into the formal economy, he commented.

Murenzi said Rwanda's mobile subscribers should grow from 600 000 to five million by 2012. Revenue from the mobile industry will likely bring close to $1 billion into the economy, which is a quarter of the GDP, he added.