Taking broadband to Africa: an interview with newly re-elected ITU Secretary General Dr Hamadoun Touré


Newly re-elected ITU Secretary General Dr Hamadoun Touré speaks to BizTechAfrica about Africa's broadband needs and how they can be met.

BTA: What is the current definition of broadband (speeds regarded as 'high speed' have changed over the years - what is the current accepted standard for high-speed fixed line and mobile access)?

Dr Hamadoun Touré: In fact there are several definitions of ‘broadband’. I think it is best not to focus on specifying a particularly speed, as whatever we decide to nominate will quickly be out of date. Remember at one point “640k of memory should be enough for anyone”? Technology just moves too fast. What’s important about broadband networks is that they can support streaming multimedia content, and that they are ‘always on’.

This latter point is particularly important, as it is this characteristic that will enable the so-called ‘Internet of Things’. We’re already seeing the volume of machine-to-machine communications overtake human-to-machine traffic on the Internet, and in the future many of the benefits of broadband will come directly from this – from smart grids that save both power and our environment, from health monitoring systems, from intelligent traffic management systems – and from a host of machine-to-machine applications that we haven’t even dreamed of yet. 

BTA:Which technologies are best suited to deliver broadband access to Africa?

Dr Hamadoun Touré: For a continent like Africa, it will always be a mix of technologies – fibre, satellite, long distance microwave-based services, next-generation cellular. There are major challenges in connecting isolated, low-income communities in a way that ensures that services are affordable enough to fully benefit the communities they serve.

But these challenges are also faced by many highly developed countries, like Australia, Canada and Finland, who are themselves now actively grappling with potential new models for networks and licensing. I have no doubt that, through hybrid networks, enlightened regulation that emphasizes universal access, the work of initiatives like the Broadband Commission for Digital Development, and fruitful partnerships between the public and private sectors, we will find solutions to the challenges of connecting people, wherever they may live.

BTA: How much data would constitute average broadband use for an average person in the developed world? What is considered an acceptable amount of available bandwidth per person in the developing world? (i.e. how much data would someone have access to be considered 'connected'?)

Dr Hamadoun Touré: I think in the developed world the trend is towards a kind of ‘all you can eat’ model where you pay for a minimum speed, but not for the volume of data downloaded. In Europe, 8Mbps service is increasingly widely available as a standard package – but in countries like Japan and Korea, 100Mbps connections to the home are already available and growing in popularity.

This said, some operators are indeed now looking at charging more to very high volume users, who consume a disproportionate amount of network bandwidth. These are issues for national regulators to decide. What’s important is that the speed is sufficient, the quality of service good enough, and the cost low enough for as many people as possible to get online and use the network freely to obtain and share information.

BTA: What does the Broadband Commission regard as an acceptable price to pay for broadband access? (is there a goal price they aim for that falls below the breadline in Africa?)
Dr Hamadoun Touré: The Broadband Commission has not made any pronouncement on actual pricing. But what’s clear it that the service must be affordable to ordinary people on ordinary salaries – and to marginalized communities like the elderly, the disabled, and women, who may live on even more constrained incomes. Without this vision of ‘broadband inclusion for all’, we will never truly realize the powerful benefits these networks can bring.

BTA: What % of income people currently pay for broadband in the developed world, vs the average paid in developing African nations?

Dr Hamadoun Touré: In the top 43 countries most-wired developed countries, broadband subscriptions cost less than 3% of monthly income per capita. At the other end of the scale, in the bottom 28 countries – most of which are Least Developed Countries – a monthly broadband subscription costs over 100% of average monthly income. So the people who can least afford broadband are being asked to pay the most.

While advanced markets have broadband penetration of over 30%, most of the world struggles with 5% or less.
There is some good news: ITU’s 2010 Measuring the Information Society report shows that the cost of broadband is falling sharply. There was a drop of 42% in broadband prices globally over the past 12 months. But we still have a long, long way to go in realizing our vision of broadband inclusion.

BTA: Can broadband service providers in Africa sustain the cost of supplying low cost broadband services to millions of people in developing nations? If not, who should assist them and how?

Dr Hamadoun Touré: There’s no doubt that it is a challenge to serve low-income communities where return on investment might be slower than network operators could achieve in more developed markets. But there are always innovative solutions. Look at how the pre-paid subscription model, pioneered in Portugal, transformed the uptake of mobile cellular services in rich and poor countries alike.

Regulators can also create licensing packages whereby operators get access to highly lucrative urban markets in return for an obligation to roll networks out to more isolated areas. Technological advances also help – we’re seeing new lower-cost technologies coming onto the market that can help overcome the prohibitive cost of serving highly dispersed populations, for example.

BTA:In countries where basic infrastructure such as water and electricity do not reach the masses, should broadband also be considered a priority? Why?

Dr Hamadoun Touré: Yes, because broadband is the key enabler that will deliver so many of the services critical to helping countries reach the Millennium Development Goals, which are now just five years away. Research consistently shows that investment in any sort of ICTs has a direct positive effect on GDP growth. Interestingly, higher-end technologies – such as broadband networks – have been shown to deliver the greatest benefits.

A 10% increase in fixed line teledensity seems to increase GDP by around 0.5%. The same increase in mobile teledensity increases GDP by some 0.7 percentage points. And a 10% increase in broadband penetration can boost GDP by an average of 1.3%.

New studies also indicate that broadband networks can pay for themselves relatively quickly through the benefits they offer across society as a whole. This makes them incredibly cost-effective – since broadband network rollout can effectively be financed by innovation and cost-savings in sectors such as health, education, energy and transport. Recent estimates show that in some countries, cost savings of 3% in just one of these key sectors over ten years could cover the cost of building national high-speed networks.

Source: Biztech Africa - http://biztechafrica.com/