Bridging the digital divide

- Leadership - Jan 10, 2013

Written by Lance Hiley, who is Chief Marketing Officer at Vislink, a UK-based global technology business, which specialises in the design and manufacture of microwave radio, satellite transmission, wireless camera and marine systems

Despite the critical importance of stable and affordable internet access for economic growth – the World Bank has stated that a 10 percent increase in broadband penetration can increase GDP by 1.38 percent in developing countries – Africa continues to be plagued by issues of low bandwidth, high cost and high latency.

And that’s in the areas that are connected. Many Africans in more remote, rural areas don’t have access to the internet at all. Recent technological developments, however, are slowly beginning to change this.

Considerable investment has already been made to bridge the divide between Africa and the rest of the world. Several underwater fibre-optic cables have been installed in recent years, connecting Africa with Europe using high-bandwidth links.

 Yet reports suggest that 40 percent of sub-Saharan Africa remains unfulfilled with regards to broadband access, falling considerably behind more developed countries due to high prices and limited supply.

Corruption threat

Even in those areas already covered by fixed-line infrastructure, internet access is far from consistent. The country’s undersea communications network is constantly under threat of corruption or sabotage and, when damaged, can cause significant problems for local people, businesses and emergency services.

In February 2012, four of these underwater cables were severed, one by a ship’s anchor and three under rumours of corruption and sabotage. The resulting outage took three weeks to rectify, affecting connectivity in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania and Ethiopia.

These incidents underscore the fragility of Africa’s broadband infrastructure, demonstrating that a broader strategy is needed.A more robust alternative, one that’s far less susceptible to external interference, is required to strengthen Africa’s overall broadband connectivity strategy.

The activation of Avanti’s HYLAS 2 satellite in October 2012 has been seen by many to hold the key to tackling Africa’s connectivity conundrum, as it offers the potential to  deliver up to 100Gb/sreliable internet access across the continent without the complications or delay associated with installing fixed-line infrastructure.

Such technological innovations are driving down costs and enhancing the overall capabilities of satellites to deliver internet connectivity.

Reliable access

No longer deemed to be an expensive and impractical substitute to fibre-optic cable or terrestrial broadband delivery, satellite technology is an increasingly important way for many Africans to obtain reliable access to internet services. In areas where operational costs and concerns have limited the development of a last mile infrastructure, satellites provide a compelling alternative and can deliver high-capacity broadband access at a fraction of the cost of fixed line solutions.

The availability of satellites like the Avanti HYLAS satellite above Africa, however, is only one part of the overall solution. Access to the hardware used to connect to these services and deliver local coverage, providing much needed internet access precisely where it’s needed, is just as, if not more, important.

Satellite hardware now exists that is extremely mobile, versatile and easy to use, designed to operate in high temperatures or inhospitable conditions – ideally suited to the climate in some areas of Africa. Satellite data terminals, such as Vislink’s Mantis MSAT, weigh less than 12.5kgs and can be easily transported by a single person.

Modern satellite data terminals are highly durable and portable solutions which can deliver high bandwidth voice, video and broadcast data communications in remote areas of Africa where a fixed-lined connection isn’t possible, or would be too expensive to deploy. This technology can provide a real lifeline to those areas of Africa without internet access at all.

First response

Beyond this, satellite technology is particularly advantageous to public and emergency services, allowing first response teams to share lifesaving information from the scene of an incident in real-time.

Satellite technology also has the potential to change rural healthcare in Africa, by connecting remote areas without access to specialist doctors and nurses to skilled medical professionals located elsewhere.

A high-speed, high-bandwidth data terminal is of benefit for disaster recovery purposes, particularly where fixed-line infrastructure traditionally used for communication is either not available or has been damaged by natural disasters or vandalism.

Here, the benefits of immediacy and reliability associated with satellite broadband are truly highlighted, enabling disparate teams to communicate with one another regardless of their location.

Ultimately, if Africa does not deliver consistent and reliable internet access to all corners of the country, then the digital divide will continue to grow.

There is evidently an increasing need for reliable broadband connectivity on the continent, not only to encourage economic growth but also to support essential services.

As satellite broadband connectivity can be introduced much more quickly than fixed-line alternatives, it is a compelling solution for delivering internet access to Africa’s most remote locations.

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