NOW more than ever, Africa needs to speed up fibre development to narrow the digital divide and embrace globalisation.

And to achieve this, the continent needs to adopt policies quicker and push legislative changes that advance fibre rollout. 

This is according to speakers at the Africa Fibre Forum 2023 held at the Westin Hotel in Cape Town this week on the sidelines of AfricaCom,  the continent’s premier tech festival, bringing together an array of speakers, experts and exhibitors. 

The forum, hosted by Digital Council Africa (DCA) and co-sponsored by ICT giant Huawei and the World Broadband Association (WBBA), drew experts from the AfricanTelecommunications Union (ATU), South Africa’s Department of Communications and Digital Technologies (DCDT), major operators, vendors, associations and consultants such as  Africa Analysis.

Over 100 leaders and experts as well as over 50 organidations gathered to map the way forward for industry development, with calls for policy shifts to grow the ecosystem that will boost fibre development and broadband expansion. 

John Omo, Secretary General of the African Telecommunications Union.

Among the speakers was ATU Secretary General John Omo, who joined other distinguished experts to unpack the continent’s fibre industry and the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

The stakeholders committed to accelerating the rollout of fibre and called for collaboration between private sector players and governments to achieve growth in this key sector. 

Said Omo: “Policymakers, industry experts, and key stakeholders must engage in a collaborative dialogue to formulate policies that streamline regulatory processes, incentivise private investments, and encourage public-private partnerships that catalyze innovation and operational efficiency.”

The in-depth discussions zoomed in on the key challenges faced by Africa in accelerating fibre coverage, fibre strategy and policy, and how to speed up broadband adoption and boost the overarching broadband service economy in the continent. 

 Deputy Minister of Communications & Digital Technologies, Philly Mapulane.

Philly Mapulane, South Africa’s Deputy Minister of Communications & Digital Technologies, quoting a recent World Economic Forum article on global digital quality of life, raised concerns about Africa’s slow internet speeds, which hampered the growth of the digital economy. 

“A concerning observation in it is that Africa has the slowest internet speeds globally, 195% slower than Europe’s average for mobile internet speeds and 418% slower than Europe’s fixed internet speeds. Investment in fibre is our best bet at turning the situation around,” said Mapulane. 

He added. “Digital infrastructure, in particular the fibre networks, is essential to support the digital economy and to harness opportunities offered by the emerging technologies and innovations.

“Universal, high quality, affordable and inclusive connectivity is dependent on extensive deployment and use of fibre networks.”

 Concurred Martin Creaner, Director General of WBBA: “The world will add another 243 million fixed connections over the coming five years, most of them fiber, so that by 2027, 32% of the global population will be connected, up from only 23% in 2020.

“The African continent is in the fast lane of broadband connectivity with a faster rate of growth and greater potential for growth than any other region of the world.”

 Added Creaner: “To realise this potential, we need to introduce more investors to the continent to fund connectivity initiatives, while encouraging regulators and governments to step up policies prioritising fibre infrastructure rollout and sharing.

“Additionally, the broadband ecosystem must identify affordable and innovative broadband solutions for countries with limited resources. 

“The WBBA is providing a worldwide platform for all stakeholders to come together to address broadband development, and Africa as always been at the core of the WBBA mission.”

 DCA’s Juanita Clark echoed similar sentiments. “In the past, I would’ve had to give the ‘why fibre’ talk. Today, I don’t feel like I have to because everyone understands how important it is.”  

Digital Council Africa president Andile Ngcaba.

DCA president Andile Ngcaba pointed out that fibre access needed long term approach.

He said: “We have to think about our continent on a long-term basis. In 2050, we will have 2.5 billion people. What can we do to address this moving connectivity target?”

Samuel Chen, President of Southern Africa Carrier Network Business Group of Huawei, outlined Africa’s immense fibre potential, raising concerns about the continent’s low fibre access at a time when the digital economy was taking off in the rest of the world, particularly in Europe.

 Samuel Chen, President of Southern Africa Carrier Network Business Group of Huawei.

Said Chen: “Connectivity is rapidly changing our lives, but compared with the global average, the penetration rate of access fibre in Africa is much lower, which restricts the digitalisation process in Africa.

 “However, Africa’s broadband growth rate is the highest in the world.”

He said the Chinese company, in Africa for 20 years,  understands the continent’s fibre needs and had the capacity to provide  cost-effective solutions with highest efficiency and premium experience

This includes the “one fibre network for full service” methodology and the innovative AirPON solution.

“Huawei has explored and practiced cutting-edge technologies such as FTTR and IPv6+ in Africa,” he said.

Vuma CEO Dietlof Mare.

Dietlof Mare, CEO of South African fibre provider Vuma, upped the ante, arguing it was just about installing fibre, “but ensuring that fibre connections are of the right quality.”  

Mare argued that enhanced acces quickly creates demand. 

An example is the houses in the low-income Cape Town suburb of Mitchell’s Plain, who wentfrom having no connectivity to using 300Gb of data a month each.

“It’s data access in abundance, and that’s what we want to try and create,” he told stakeholders in the fibre industry.