|Issue:||Africa and the Middle East 1999|
|Topic:||Telecommunications: The Backbone of the African Renaissance|
|Title:||Marketing & Communications Director|
As Deputy President in 1997, South Africa’s now President, Thabo Mbeki, launched the concept of an African Renaissance to focus attention on the continents enormous potential for economic and social development: and it is increasingly clear that telecommunications will be a critical factor in delivering that vision.
At the highly successful Africa Telecom 98 in Johannesburg last year, South Africa’s then Minister for Posts, Telecommunications and Broadcasting, Jay Naidoo, expressed the view of many of the 20,000 people who attended the exhibition when he said: “Telecoms is the backbone for economic revival in Africa, requiring universal services and access for all Africans.” He added: “There is a need to develop applications to serve needs unique to Africa , leapfrogging infrastructure and information gaps. Our vision is to create a knowledge-based society and help create an information economy.” Mr Naidoo described how there is a growing gap in economic development between information-rich and information-poor countries. But far from being trapped in what he called years of Afro-pessimism, he argued that Africa is beginning to realise the tremendous opportunities for development in telecommunications and is tackling the challenge with optimism and commitment. The scale of the challenge is enormous. Since the invention of the telephone more than 100 years ago, (Africa has installed fewer than 20 million lines)?, whilst China put in 20 million new lines in 1997 alone. But as Henry Chasia, Deputy Secretary-General of the UN-supported International Telecommunications Union, said last year: “This shows that it can be done and we here in Africa can witness the same progress.” His optimism was echoed by Mr Mbeki, who said: “We have the political will to put in 50 million lines in Africa in the next five years. We will connect every village, every school and every clinic in Africa, if we are determined enough to do this.” There are certainly signs that the political will is growing throughout the continent to tackle the issue, but the most pressing issue is one of finance. Africa as a whole is spending approximately US$3 billion per year on upgrading its telecoms infrastructure, but that is a fraction of the amount being spent by China to achieve its new communications revolution. One answer may be to answer Nelson Mandellas call last year for the establishment of a new, dedicated African Communications Development Fund which “would finance the infrastructure projects needed to extend technology to every village in Africa and would certainly put the continent on the map of the global information society”. Until such a fund is made available, however, the rate at which telecoms develops will depend on local conditions and local initiatives. South Africa may have the advantage of being a relatively rich country, but its communication problems are similar to those shared by many other African states. Communications throughout Africa often follow a pattern where sophisticated communications systems serve the main cities and commercial centres, whilst there is a much lower level of access to services in the rural hinterlands and under-developed urban areas. As Dr Pekka Tarjanne, the ITU Secretary General, has pointed out, the majority of Africans have never even seen or used a telephone and are on the wrong side of the information gap. Even well off South Africa had just over 4 million lines for its 33 million people in 1996 which of 1.2 million were served by outdated electromechanical exchanges. In Africa as a whole, the availability of telephones is generally less than two per 100 people, compared with an average of 60-70 in most developed countries and an astonishing record of 99 per 100 in Monaco. In many areas of Africa, access is well below one per 100 people. South Africa is taking a clear lead to reverse this disparity. Under its Vision 2000 programme, Telkom SA is planning to install 2.8 million new lines and replace 1.25 million obsolete analogue lines in the next two years. Its primary aim is to make telecoms services universally available to rural areas and disadvantaged urban communities for the first time. The technology at the heart of the new South African system is Marconis SDH (synchronous digital hierarchy) which runs over optical fibre, providing the country with an extremely robust, reliable and high quality network which is as technically advanced as any communications system in the world. This represents a massive investment in core infrastructure, but the project involves an equal determination to take telecoms access to the level of the smallest village, using a range of appropriate technologies which are designed to hook into the backbone network. Simple public payphones, or community telephones, faxes and Internet access can make a vast difference in rural areas where no networked communications exist at all at present. The technologies needed to bring such villages on-line need not be super-fast optical fibres. There has been tremendous progress in recent years in developing effective solutions involving radio, cellular and satellite communications, as well as new applications of copper wire networks, which can bring communications to the remotest areas at relatively low cost. For example, cellular phones may still be regarded as lifestyle accessories of the rich, but with their cost falling and coverage expanding rapidly, the ITU believes that they have an enormous potential in developing countries and will outnumber fixed telephones worldwide by 2007. Experience in South Africa and elsewhere confirms that where access to telephones can be made available, whether to individual subscribers or through community communications centres operating on a pay-by-use basis, there is rapid popular take-up of the service. This pent-up demand could well prove to be the answer to the critical problem of how to finance network development where capital is scarce – because public demand means there is potential for generating revenue, which in turn makes a strong case for attracting investment from commercial sources. My own company, for example, is looking closely at a range of innovative ways to help African operators finance new telecoms systems. Options include build, operate and transfer schemes, in which the supplier provides the finance as well as the equipment and management for a new system, and is paid out of the revenue it generates before ownership is transferred to a local telecoms company. It remains unrealistic to expect Africa’s communications capabilities to develop at the same rate in every country, but there are strong grounds for believing that we will be able to develop, using compatible standards. The legacy systems left behind by colonial administrations are being supplanted by technologies which are based on global protocols and will enable us to communicate effectively with each other and with the rest of the world. I also believe we will see an increase in cross border co-operation between neighbouring countries, such as the 14 states involved in the South African Development Community (SADC). Conclusion My final reason for optimism about the role of communications in the African Renaissance is that we are by no means confined to being passive consumers of telecoms systems and services bought in from companies based outside Africa: hence GECs decision earlier this year to establish Marconi Communications South Africa. GECs investment represents its faith in our enormous potential to expand our own communications manufacturing industry, producing first class African solutions for African applications – and winning growing revenues from the equipment we make and sell worldwide. Whether it is providing the first telephone for the remotest tribal village, global connections for fast-growing commercial centres, or investment and jobs in new industrial enterprises, I am convinced that telecoms will be one of the most vital forces in the transformation of Africa as we move into the millennium.