All eyes on Africa
The readiness of South Africa's telcos for the FIFA World Cup demonstrates the potential of Africa's telecom sector
The preparations that have been made by South Africa's telecom operators and government for the FIFA World Cup in June are a testament not only to the skill of the telecom professionals working in the country, but also to the huge strides made by the entire African continent in the past decade.
When the World Cup kicks off on June 11, more than half a million people will converge on the host cities, and South Africa's mobile capacity will be ready to cater for their requirements for voice and data services.
But the rest of the world will also be tuning in for a piece of the action, which is being broadcast in high definition for the first time. Sports fans across the globe will be relying on the networks put in place by fixed operator Telkom to send a huge volume of data from the World Cup stadiums to the International Broadcast Centre, from where it will be routed on to broadcasters around the world.
But the efforts of South Africa's operators would amount to little if it was not for many other telecom infrastructure developments that have served to connect the African continent to the rest of the world.
Last month, construction of East African Submarine Cable System, better known as EASSy, was completed. Once operational, the cable, which is set to go live in June, will be the largest submarine cable serving sub-Saharan Africa, according to WIOCC, the leading investor in the project.
Meanwhile, Seacom, a cable system linking east Africa to Europe and India continues to expand its reach. In March, Seacom signed a deal for a landing station in Ethiopia. Countries including Kenya, Mozambique and Tanzania are already reaping the benefits of Seacom, with bandwidth supply increasing by between 700% and 1000% in those countries.
But while Africa's connections to the rest of the world may be improving rapidly, fixed infrastructure through most of the continent is inadequate, and virtually non-existent outside cities, and even mobile infrastructure is patchy in rural areas.
As Lindsay McDonald, a consultant with Frost & Sullivan points out: "It doesn't matter how many cables are laid and what the capacity of these cables is, the most important thing is that we have good terrestrial infrastructure."
As the past couple of months have demonstrated, Africa is widely viewed as an enormous opportunity by telecom operators, with Bharti Airtel acquiring most of Zain's African assets, France Telecom making clear its ambition to expand across MEA, and South Africa's MTN also revealing it was interested in acquiring various African assets from Egypt's Orascom. All of these developments are likely to lead to greater investment in the region, bringing better infrastructure and services.
While it may be unrealistic to expect operators in Africa to start deploying much fibre in the near future, advances in wireless technology including HSPA+, WiMAX and eventually LTE will add to the telcos choice of technology for deploying the data networks that will make use of Africa's growing international bandwidth capacity.
All of this may take a number of years, but when the World Cup fixes the attention of the world on Africa, it will not only serve to break down stereotypes, it will also remind operators, vendors and investors of just what can be achieved in Africa when the bar is raised.