AU claims 300m Africans live 50km away from broadband connections

• Nigeria’s penetration dropped by 2.14% in three months
• 42% of countries in region lack IXPs
The African Union (AU) has noted that though there has been a huge expansion of fibre optic networks on the continent (which have extended from 278 056 km in 2009 to 1.02 million km in June 2019), nearly 300 million Africans still live more than 50 km from a fibre or cable broadband connection.

This, the AU noted, has stalled some significant growths, especially digital transformations among countries within the region. Checks by The Guardian showed that broadband penetration fell by 2.14 per cent in three months between November 2020 and January 2021 with some 4.1 million Nigerians losing access. As of November 2020, there were 86 million users; it dropped to 81.9 million by January, according to subscriber statistics from the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC).

Market watchers attributed the drop partially to the NIN-SIM directive of the Federal Government and access cost. AU said achieving universal coverage of communications infrastructures requires place-based policies to overcome spatial inequalities.
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According to the union, over the last decade, most African countries have actively developed their ICT infrastructure networks with significant investment from the private sector. It disclosed that 45 out of 54 African countries had an active digital broadband infrastructure development strategy in 2018, compared to 16 in 2011. AU said in 2018, digital infrastructure financing was $7 billion, with 80 per cent of this amount coming from private sector investments.

It also observed that though about 58 per cent of the population in Africa now live in a geographic area covered by the fourth generation (4G) mobile network, North Africa has the highest figure on the continent, with 85 per cent of its population covered by the 4G network in 2020, compared to 86.5 per cent in Latin America and the Caribbean and 88 per cent in developing Asia in the same year.

According to the continental body, in collaboration with OECD Development Centre, in a study titled: ‘Africa’s Development Dynamics 2021’, complementary solutions to expand and enhance the transmission network such as Internet Exchange Points (IXPs), data servers and satellite transmission systems remain underdeveloped.

For example, the union said 42 per cent of African countries still do not have IXPs and their domestic Internet traffic has to be routed abroad to reach its destination.

The Union, while quoting the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), said achieving universal access to broadband connectivity in Africa by 2030 would require approximately $100 billion or $9 billion a year, which would include laying out at least 250 000 km of fibre across the region.

The use of communications infrastructures by the population, according to AU, is also highly-unequal
across space, gender, education levels and employment status. For example, it noted that more than 75 per cent of Africa’s youth has a mobile phone, however, only 22 per cent of rural youth regularly use the Internet, compared to 53 per cent of urban inhabitants.

Similarly, the union noted that share of young people regularly using the Internet varies across gender groups (30 per cent of women and 44 per cent of men), education levels (eight per cent of those with less than primary education and 77 per cent of those with an upper secondary or higher education) and employment status (16 per cent of those self-employed and 58 per cent of those with waged jobs).
Further, AU said the high concentration of the existing digital ecosystems in the megacities raises the concern of growing spatial inequality due to digitalisation. It stressed that the majority of Africa’s digital hubs and start-ups concentrate in large cities. For example, the report said five cities host 49 per cent of the most dynamic African start-ups identified by Crunchbase in 2019, these include Cape Town 12.5 per cent; Lagos 10.3 per cent, Johannesburg 10.1 per cent, Nairobi 8.8 per cent and Cairo 6.9 per cent. These five cities account for just 53 million inhabitants, less than four per cent of the total African population.

According to AU, they offer strong digital ecosystems with critical masses of skills, supporting infrastructure, investors and communities for entrepreneurship.

The union observed that bridging these spatial divides is a critical first step to avoid widening the mismatch between the spatial distributions of jobs and people.

“Today, the majority of the African population lives outside the largest cities. About 70 per cent of Africa’s young people reside in rural areas. Rural populations make up 1.4 billion people. They will continue to grow in absolute terms, at least beyond 2050,” AU noted.

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