Broadband faces long last mile in Middle East and Africa

fiber optic cable middle east

Big infrastructure projects are already in place to improve much of the Middle East and Africa’s expensive and slow Internet. For many countries, however, many issues lie ahead.

Over the last five years, there has been a spate of new international subsea fiber-optic cable networks linking African and Middle Eastern coastal countries to the global network of cables and datacenters, individuals and institutions that make up the Internet. This is expected to continue, making the region a global leader for investment in such infrastructure.

The expansion of undersea fiber-optic networks has led to a growth in terrestrial fiber-optic networks in many African and Middle Eastern countries. Cables now span the region, integrating some of the world’s most remote areas through high-speed global networks.

These projects promised to cut Internet subscription prices drastically, broaden access, and speed up connections across the region. Given the importance of fast and affordable Internet for businesses, individuals and societies, these projects were seen to have revolutionary potential. With each new undersea cable comes new optimism of fast Internet at better prices.

Some optimism is warranted. Subscription prices have dropped (alth1ough they are still several multiples higher than in Europe), and investment is quickly expanding data capacity. According to one report, “the aggregate design capacity of cable systems serving Africa will increase by a factor of 70 over what was available as recently as 2008 (from 350 gigabits/sec to around 25 terabits/sec).”

So far, however, results have been lackluster. According to the most recent annual report from the International Telecommunications Union (ITC), a UN telecommunications body, Internet connection prices in Africa and the Middle East are still among the highest in the world, reaching 100-200% of per capita income. And in many places, they’re simply unavailable.

Getting Internet to Homes and Businesses is Hard.

Pulling miles of fiber-optic cable across oceans to bridge continents is by no means an easy project. However, the subsea segment of global data networks avoids many of the challenges faced by the networks on land.

Once subsea cables reach land, they come under operatorship of companies that maintain ‘backbone’ and ‘backhaul’ fiber-optic cable networks, which connect cities to international cables and lease bandwidth to smaller ISPs, which connect to customers and businesses.

At the point that backbone cables reach cities, governments and ISPs have a few options in regard to ‘last mile’ infrastructure, which connects the backbone infrastructure to consumers.

Fiber-to-the-building (FTTB) networks are the fastest – and once in place, the cheapest – way to quickly move large amounts of data. However, building these networks requires millions of dollars of investment, and in many poor MEA countries, where demand for high speed broadband remains low, the private sector is hesitant to invest in the infrastructure.

DSL, which uses the telephone landlines already in place to carry data, is slower than fiber, but is a viable alternative when the costs of fiber network deployment is prohibitive. Unfortunately, relatively few MEA households and businesses are connected to working landlines. At this point, where there are not already telephone landlines in place, it is not uncommon for telecoms to skip landline deployment entirely, in favor of fiber-optic networks and reliance on mobile operators for telephones.

Wireless Internet technologies offer a third option. 4G/LTE wireless broadband, the latest and fastest option for wireless data, provides fast connections. However, it is also expensive to operate, and requires increasingly limited space in electromagnetic spectrum.

Regardless of the means of data transmission to individuals, implementation is difficult and expensive. Additionally, once the cables hit land, networks become operated by a mishmash of state backed telecoms, local cable operators, and local ISPs.

Landlocked countries face further difficulties; cable operators and ISPs must work with domestic cable operators of neighboring countries to even access the subsea networks.

Many of the issues could be overcome with investment. But a lack of competition within markets, poor government regulation, and a tendency in the sector towards public and private sector rent seeking have yet to be solved.

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Categories: Middle East/North Africa, Technology

Author:Brady Jewett

Brady Jewett is an editor at a publishing, research, and consulting company focused on frontier markets. Brady has previously served as a lecturer at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS), and as a research assistant at the Wilson Center, a Washington, DC based think tank. Brady holds an MSc in Political Economy of Late Development from the LSE, and a BA in Political Science and Global Studies from UCSB. He is based between Slemani and Erbil, Kurdistan Region, Iraq. Views expressed here are his own.

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