Frank Opfer is Vice-President of Solutions Management for T-Systems International Carrier Sales & Solutions (ICSS). He is responsible for solutions strategy and sales worldwide. He previously worked for Equant as the Director of the Regional Product Management Team for Data & IP in Europe, for Betrelsmann/mediaWays and Deutsche Telekom. Mr Opfer has an engineering degree in Information Processing and a dual MBA degree from the J.L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University in Chicago and the Otto Beisheim Graduate School (WHU) in Germany.
WiFi, Wireless Fidelity, is the current buzzword in Africa. It is bringing a host of new opportunities for communicating with anyone anywhere in the world. Thanks to wireless communication covering everything from mobile telephony to WiFi roaming, Africa is poised to make the leap from sporadic telephone service to full-time, worldwide, connectivity. WiMax, a trade organisation created by leading communications companies, aims to promote an industry-wide standard for the next level of wireless networking, creating more broadband access choices in Africa.
Everyone in the telecommunications industry is talking about hot new technologies. WiFi (Wireless Fidelity) is the current buzzword that, along with other complex solutions, is bringing a host of new opportunities for communicating with anyone anywhere in the world. This is all well and good for subscribers in Paris or New York, eagerly awaiting the next hotspot island, but what do these technologies mean for developing parts of the world? Recent trends in Central and Eastern Europe can give us some hints to what lies ahead for other developing nations. After the fall of the Berlin wall, Western culture streamed across the old divide to countries whose infrastructures were crumbling. With decrepit legacy telephony networks not up to speed, the region turned to new wireless technologies to bridge the gap, namely mobile telephony. In a matter of a few short years, the face of Central and Eastern Europe changed from one of a doddering traditional grandmother to young, hip and technologically advanced, sometimes more so than their Western European peers. As we look at Africa, many similarities between the two geographical areas emerge. Today’s landline infrastructure in Africa is even less developed than the communist-era networks in Central and Eastern Europe. In addition, conventional wisdom dictates that African governments and private companies are shying away from costly, time-consuming and largely ineffective investments in traditional fixed-line networks. However, thanks to wireless communication covering everything from mobile telephony to WiFi roaming, Africa is poised to make the leap from sporadic telephone service to world-ranging connectivity. Mobile telephony: driving growth Mobile telephony is clearly the major driving factor in telecommunications growth in Africa, proven by the boom in basic telephone access on the African continent. According to the World Telecommunication Development Report, Africa now has more than 20 million mobile subscribers and over half of all African nations have more mobile than fixed subscribers. Even the concept of subscribers is different in Africa, as the conventional wisdom of attracting only ‘value’ subscribers to one’s network has evolved into a strategy of bringing in as many users as possible, even if they use alternative means of access, such as mobile calling cards. Pyramid Research reports that these new dynamics result in a total mobile penetration 1.5 to 2 times higher than the actual subscriber penetration. Sweeping cultural changes are also affecting the way Africans use the new wireless technology in their daily lives. International television hits such as "Big Brother" are tweaked to reflect African tastes and values, but the basic principle remains the same: the audience decides who will make it to the next round by mobile text voting. This kind of high-margin traffic obviously boosts mobile operators’ revenue, but also presents an opportunity for traditional operators to extend their current portfolio to support the vast number of mobile messages that are sent during special televised events. Mobile message delivery platforms are one of the new breed of solutions enabling traditional carriers to break into the lucrative SMS and MMS sector. Africa and the Internet The Internet is another element that has major implications for Africa’s development; however, access is far from widespread. A World Markets Research Centre study estimates that the cost of broadband circuits in Africa can be up to a hundred times greater than in developed countries, due to the fact that connectivity into the Internet backbone requires an international circuit as opposed to a local loop. In this case, exorbitant costs definitely suppress demand. Despite this difficult environment, broadband access is probably one of the most dynamic sectors in Africa, but not in the traditional sense. Building on Kofi Annan’s statement that WiFi and satellite technology are the United Nation’s choice for connecting Africa to the Internet, ISPs are largely investing in wireless solutions. Unfazed by the lack of fixed-line infrastructure, these companies are wisely taking advantage of ISM (Internet services model) bands. Since these bands are unlicensed and the customer equipment is inexpensive, wireless bandwidth reduces costs for both service providers and end customers. Wireless Fidelity: putting networks on fast-forward With the advent of WiFi comes a variety of new solutions for growth and development. As more and more Africans gain access to the Internet, services such as hotspots become a viable option. Although, for the moment, few African households use computers, hotspots can be an advantage for business travellers, intra-continental and international. As hotspots pop up in countries such as South Africa, Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya, Africa will soon face the same problems as the United States and Europe in terms of WiFi roaming. When hotspot clusters emerge, it is necessary to link them in some way in order to reach the technology’s full potential. Sophisticated solutions like Wireless LAN Roaming platforms have practical applications in Africa. Wireless LAN Roaming effectively links hotspot operators, otherwise known as Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs) and WLAN service providers in different countries. Via this intelligent platform, end users can benefit from hotspots not only across Africa but anywhere in the world. Carriers who deploy them expand their portfolios as an entrée to new sources of revenue and end users gain flexibility. Ultimately, this technology can break down barriers for doing business in Africa, thus driving economic growth. WLAN platforms also have implications for a new generation of voice services. While potential for growth in traditional fixed-line voice may be limited, voice is still the preferred communication medium, confirmed by the surge in African mobile use. Voice over IP (VoIP) is beginning to take off as an alternative to fixed-line communication, but hasn’t come into its own. WiFi has the potential to change this scenario, shifting its use from a data-only application to a multi-purpose technology. With VoIP-enabled mobile phones, end users can bypass the pricey mobile network and make phone calls anywhere in the world via the public Internet. It is in this case that hotspots begin to transform from a novelty into a viable communication solution for Africa. Perhaps the main benefit of mixing voice and data over a wireless is to make use of a common infrastructure, a significant advantage for developing African networks. Not only is a common system for both data and voice traffic generally simpler and less expensive than two separate ones, but the ability to bypass technology layers in order to build up a state-of-the-art, cost-effective network is a boon for third-world countries. WiMAX – Africa’s ultimate connectivity solution? When introducing any new standard for mass adoption, there are many things to consider, including equipment interoperability and deployment time. WiMax, a trade organisation created by leading communications companies, aims to promote an industry-wide standard for the next level of wireless networking, thus eliminating these concerns and creating more broadband access choices. The WiMax technology, also known as 802.16a, is a wireless standard offering more range and bandwidth that the current WiFi service. WiFi is generally used to connect hotspots in proximity to one another, whereas WiMax is capable of transmitting large volumes of data over distances of up to 50 kilometres. In addition, WiMax maximises coverage, linking thousands of end users from a single base station. Due for commercial release in 2005, WiMax will have an impact worldwide in several different environments, from crowded urban centres where build-out is difficult, to suburban areas where subscribers are located far from central broadband facilities. WiMax could very well serve as the deciding factor for the future of Africa’s Internet connectivity. Despite WiFi’s ability to remotely link laptop users to the World Wide Web, the fact remains that PC penetration on the continent is very low. In the current environment, a simple cyber café with docked computers is a more practical answer for African users. However, infrastructure constraints mean that cyber cafés are by necessity located in cities, far from the reach of many Africans. With WiMax’s long-range reach eliminating the need for the so-called ‘last mile’, rural hotspot clusters take on a new significance. It is in this capacity that the hotspot revolution can truly reach out to rural communities. Conclusion Judging from the recent attention that organisations such as the United Nations have given the subject and the plethora of ICT trade shows and forums appearing in all African regions, it is clear that the focus of the coming years will be on harnessing the power of new technologies to benefit African society. Will the wireless age boom in Africa? Based on worldwide trends in developing markets, the answer is definitively yes. The world is looking to Africa for new business opportunities and Africans themselves are embracing new solutions that will change the face of the continent as we know it today.