Africa's telecom growth still the fastest, says ITU By PHILIP NGUNJIRI Special Correspondent THE EAST AFRICAN Africa continues to be the world's fastest growing market for communication technology, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) says. In a report released at a trade fair for the African telecommunications industry in Cairo last week, the ITU says the continent had 65 million new subscribers in 2007 alone, while mobile phone penetration had risen from just one in 50 people in 2000 to one third of the continent's current total population of 900 million today. Mobile phone use is now more evenly distributed across the continent. However, the report says that growth in Internet access has not kept pace. In 2007, it was estimated there were 50 million Internet users in Africa, about one person in 20. Moreover, in sub-Saharan Africa, only 3 per cent of the population is online. The average monthly Internet subscription is almost $50, close to 70 per cent of average per capita income. Over half of the region's Internet users are estimated to be located in North African countries and in South Africa. In sub-Saharan Africa, only three per cent of the population is online. The scarcity of international Internet bandwidth and lack of Internet Exchange Points drives up prices. The ITU co-ordinates global use of the radio spectrum, promotes international co-operation on assigning satellite orbits, works to improve telecommunication infrastructure in the developing world and establishes worldwide standards to foster seamless interconnection between a wide range of communication systems. Speaking at the fair, ITU secretary-general Hamadoun Toure said after liberalisation of their economies, most African countries had established regulatory bodies to ensure a fair, competitive and enabling environment for investors. Mr Toure said broadband penetration is low across the continent. There were around two million fixed broadband subscribers in Africa in 2007, less than a quarter of the population of Lagos, Nigeria. Only five African countries had a broadband penetration of more than one per 100 inhabitants in 2007. In comparison, the average broadband penetration in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries was 18.8 per 100 in June 2007. The lowest ranked country was Mexico, with a penetration of 4.6 per 100, or some 38 times more than the average for Africa. Fixed broadband access in Africa is mostly limited to urban centres. The low availability, poor quality and lack of competition in the public switched telephone network market constrains the deployment of fixed broadband access. If broadband is to become more prevalent in Africa, it is likely to be through wireless technologies such as third generation (3G) mobile and WiMAX. Third generation technologies enable network operators to offer users a wider range of more advanced services while achieving greater network capacity through improved spectral efficiency. WiMAX stands for Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access - a telecommunications technology aimed at providing wireless data over long distances in a variety of ways from point-to-point links to full mobile cellular type access In Mauritius and South Africa, 3G subscribers already outnumber fixed broadband subscribers. South Africa had 1.8 million 3G subscribers in September 2007 compared with 335,000 Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL) connections. ADSL is a form of data communications technology that enables faster data transmission over copper telephone lines than a conventional voice band modem can provide Vodacom of South Africa reported that over 10 per cent of its 3G subscribers used data cards for connections to laptops, reflecting the popularity of 3G as a broadband access method. WiMAX is moving from an experimental testing phase to commercial deployment in a number of African countries. The spread of high-speed wireless technologies will intensify broadband competition in Africa. There is evidence that broadband pricing in Africa is lower in countries that have deployed both fixed and wireless broadband technology. The provision of voice telephony through public payphones is prevalent in some African countries. Liberalisation of payphone markets has led to a proliferation of entrepreneurs reselling phone service. Levels of home computer ownership and Internet subscription are extremely low in Africa and will remain so for years to come. Higher levels of ICT access will only be achieved through public facilities such as Internet cafés and schools.