Leurquin, C. 2016. Fast-tracking connectivity solutions through private-public partnerships in Africa. GREAT Insights Magazine - Volume 5, Issue 5. October/November 2016.
Over the last ten years connectivity in Africa has increased, but the level of accessibility remains very imbalanced. Good coverage is provided by fibre optics along coastal areas but there is limited coverage in the centre of the continent. Add to this the relatively slow deployment of 3G mobile services, the lack of infrastructure in some areas, and the strict regulations around public-private partnerships (PPPs) and it is clear there is still more work to do.
As it stands, entire communities in Africa are missing out on the huge range of developmental benefits connectivity can bring. Around 400 million Africans live outside the user reach of fibre connectivity and, according to ITU (the United Nations specialised agency for information and communication), 80% still live without a mobile broadband connection. In order to be sustainable, Africa must look at its economy, society and environment; there is no question that connectivity has a part to play in all three.
However, how this digital divide can be bridged remains unclear. One technology which has huge potential to connect the unconnected, though, is satellite technology, which offers advantages such as reach, reliability and short deployment time. Additional technology innovations, for example Wi-Fi hot spots, can also be used in conjunction with satellite, boosting connectivity across Africa even further.
As a world-leading satellite operator, SES has already started to bring these benefits to the African continent. In addition to the ten satellites we have over Africa, we have also deployed SATMED healthcare programmes in Benin, Niger and Sierra Leone, and trained local engineers in precise antenna dish installation across Africa as part of the Elevate programme. This culminates in an overall investment of almost €3 billion – all of which are dedicated to providing broadband connectivity to unconnected and disconnected communities.
However, additional and faster changes in connecting the population would be possible if investments in Africa were made easier and if digitalisation of Africa became a priority.
In regards to the necessary steps to be taken in order to make the process easier, we believe one of the main areas to look at as a priority is public-private partnerships (PPPs). These are essential to ensure that public funding allows for truly inclusive societies. The critical lack of public funds allocated for the mass diffusion of connectivity to schools or hospitals, for example, means that sound PPPs do not have the power to create and accelerate opportunities in the markets in order to fast-track Africa’s development path and ensure that business and social development objectives are met. In addition, under current regulations, PPPs are often delayed or even abolished altogether.
In order to avoid this happening in the future and ensure the sustainable development goals (SDGs) are met, regulatory fees for private investors should be decreased or even exempted in case of public services – with education and health being two critical examples – and the public sector itself should commit to larger investments over longer periods of time. Private investments have already been made in Africa to bridge the digital divide, and what the private sector requires now is entrepreneurship and common PPPP (People, Public, Private Partnership) projects to deploy new initiatives. Time is of the essence and these initiatives need to be fast-tracked to slow down the massive migration of young people who don’t believe they have a future at home. We need to create jobs for them and help them develop their own tools and solutions to the world’s economic challenges.
The lack of transparency and limited opportunities private investors often face when submitting proposals to public authorities in Africa are other areas where we need to see change. In order to speed up the SDGs and further promote PPPs, decisions at international and local levels need to become faster and more transparent. On average, we currently witness a two- to three-year delay between the submission of a private sector proposal to the public governments and the signature of a contract. We would therefore strongly recommend a substantial investment in measures to develop a business-friendly environment for the private sector by offering more transparent, stable and harmonised regulatory conditions, fast-track public funding and the abolishing of two-year waits for contracts.
Finally, clearer, more specific deadlines should be set, in a similar way to the European Broadband Connectivity for All programmes.
In order for the SDGs to be met it is extremely important that connectivity is delivered to all and is recognised. If it is not, and rural areas and villages remain without the support to get connected, the issues that exist today will remain in 2020.
While people in Africa are keen to seize the opportunities offered by ICT and satellite technology, for this to happen a sustainable and accessible ecosystem has to become available for all. The only way that this can be achieved is through the right policies, the right financing instruments and transparent PPPs.
With this approach, the ITU objective of connecting 60% of the population with broadband connectivity by 2030 is achievable. In fact, with a combination of all technologies, including satellite, we could even contemplate 100%.
About the author
Christine Leurquin is Vice-President of Institutional Relations and Communications at SES Techcom services.
Photo: WiFi in Yanfolila, Mali. Courtesy: Geekcorps volunteer, Flickr.com.
This article was published in GREAT Insights Volume 5, Issue 5 (October/November 2016).