London — AfricaCom has become so big that it's difficult to grasp everything that's happening: it's the size of a small town and one minute you're talking to a Nigerian TV producer, the next to someone who's wants to make a major investment in disruptive satellite technology. Russell Southwood provides a quick snapshot of the pieces he was able to see.
There's the meetings you plan and the chance encounters: from talking to Funke Opeke, CEO, Main One, sitting quietly drafting and information release about a recent outage on the cable that was quickly resolved to bumping into Herman Singh, MTN and chatting about his plans for life after MTN.
It is no longer just the main events in the Convention Centre - which in itself has a bewildering array of conference topic streams and themed areas - but also the sheer number of events now held alongside it. For example, on the Monday I went to the Africa Early Stage Investor Summit 2018.
The same day satellite operator SES held it Industry Days event which attracted 300+ people. Never mind Artificial Intelligence (a stream this year), I would have needed cloning technology to be everywhere I would have liked to have been. So what follows are just my impressions of the things I managed to see and the people I talked to.
Living it large with digital - the new narrative
MTN's Rob Shuter talked about what its users wanted from digital and how the company is seeking to deliver it. He talked about wanting the company to become an operator of digital content and services, underpinned offering m-money services. This intention was underlined by the announcement that it was going to buy Simfy, one of the larger regional music streaming services.
At its press conference, he identified both the challenge that is also an opportunity:"When we look at our customers (220 million across 21 markets) moving to a digital world we see the only 72m are regularly using the mobile internet, so that's a third which is representative of Africa in general. It is imperative that we find innovative ways to connect our customers to the power of the Internet." He also talked about the high cost of devices to connect to the Internet being a barrier, more of which later.
Orange was also singing from the same hymn-sheet and emphasizing is own digital services supported by Orange Money. Orange Money, its mobile-based money transfer and financial services offer is available in 17 countries and has 40.2 million customers. Its pitch?"Orange, a multi-service operator and benchmark partner of the continent's digital transformation, provides its expertise to support the development of new digital services in Africa and the Middle East".
Back to the future - New, cheaper, featurephones phones to access mobile Internet
Both MTN and Orange announced that they were part of a global partnership to launch a smart 3G featurephone in Africa, driving the device cost below the US$35 mark. The launch will be in Q1, 2019 and MTN talked of target 10 million devices (available in most markets) over the next two years.
How are they doing it? By partnering with KaiOS who have an operating system that allows their featurephone to: access Google Assistant (to overcome literacy problems), a KaiStore which will have the most popular apps and localized content; a long battery life of 2000 MAH; dual SIM support; and it will make you a coffee and tell you jokes. No, I made that last bit up. The product will retail for US$20-25 and for that price you navigate with you're the buttons on your phone rather than a touch screen. The 3G version will be followed by a 4G version later next year.
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's your neighborhood Loon balloon
Google's ballon-powered internet company Loon had a stand at AfricaCom for the first time and announced that it has all the necessary regulatory approvals to launch initial tests with Telkom Kenya in the first half of 2019.
Telkom says it remains focused on bringing innovative products and solutions to the Kenyan market. "Our association with Loon, will see us partner with a pioneer in the use of high altitude balloons to provide LTE coverage across larger areas in Kenya. This collaboration represents another important step towards Telkom's quest to provide high-quality, reliable and affordable data offerings to its customers and Kenyans in under-served locations across the country."
The regulatory approvals allow Loon to host Telkom spectrum on its stratospheric balloons; utilise millimeter wave spectrum to send connectivity from the ground to balloons overhead, and import and install ground infrastructure. Thus far, Loon has worked with Telkom, Nokia, East Africa Data Centre, and Liquid Telecom to install ground stations in Nairobi and Nakuru.
Loon's solution works by beaming Internet connectivity from these ground stations to a balloon 20km overhead. From there, the signal can be sent across multiple balloons, creating a network of floating cell towers that deliver connectivity directly to a user's LTE-enabled device below. Earlier this year, Loon announced advances in its ability to share connectivity among multiple balloons. Combined with the large coverage area of each balloon - roughly 30 times greater than a ground-based system - Loon makes it possible to provide service to traditionally hard-to-reach areas.
Those cables just keep on coming, driving wholesale prices down
The continent's two newest cables - SACS and SAIL - announced partnerships in South Africa to connect out to the rest of the continent. SACS operator Angola Cables announced that it had signed at MOU with South Africa's Broadband Infraco. From a South African connectivity perspective, Broadband Infraco currently has more than 14 960 km of fibre networks across the South African geography. It also has 156 Points of Presence (PoPs) providing a high capacity, stable national network environment.
Angola Cables CEO, António Nunes, said that the partnership will facilitate internet connectivity into Africa. "With our international connectivity and reach through our submarine networks and the expansive terrestrial network of Broadband Infraco, there is a genuine opportunity for us to collectively fast-track connectivity on the continent" added Nunes. It will also have a presence in Teraco's South Africa data centres that have become key continental meet-points.
Progress on new cables for East Africa has been slower with at least two of the previously announced projects looking like they are dead in the water. But despair not, apparently two of the world's biggest data customers have a project to build a new cable on this route... More when I hear more.
Hundreds more satellites floating around in space
The satellite space over Africa is changing fast with the arrival of Amos Spacecom's satellite that will offer HTS. It's talking about offering 50% more capacity for the same price. It's what the MNOs did when they first got fibre on the east coast but long-term it must lead to a point where lower prices are available. These lower prices must surely mean that the business case for remote connectivity must ghet better over the next few years.
In the longer term (in the early 2020s) LeoSat Enterprises wants to put up a constellation of satellites in a lower orbit that are about the size of a large table offering an MPLS router. It wants to match fibre prices with just a small premium. Israeli company Sky and Space Global want to but up a constellation of smaller nano satellites that will offer voice and low capacity data to remote areas. More on all of these developments in a later issue.
Seen and heard...
World Telecom Labs (WTL) announced that it has partnered with eWATERpay to include the provision of water into its Vivada Rural Infrastructure Ecosystem. eWATERpay will extend the water supply to villages and install taps. Its technology allows people to pre-pay for water using cash or mobile money, made possible by WTL's Vivada wifi and GSM network. Water credit can also be purchased and shared by government (to schools and health clinics) or urban diaspora (to family). In the same spirit, Orange won an AfricaCom award for its rural electrification project.
At the Africom Awards, it's worth mentioning Liquid won Best Network Improvement for its Cape Town to Cairo Route. It was also pitching making Microsoft Azure services available across the same geography but although that doesn't have quite the same ring, it shows where the market is going. Yegomoto won IoT product/service of the year for its connected drivers service and Kwese iflix won best digital entertainment solution... Let's hope they can survive the closure of their Pay TV service to become a major player in the market. Mohamed Eid, CEO, of Somalia's Telesom was voted African CXO of the year.
The AppsAfrica.com Awards were held on Monday and my favorites were: Best African App: SafeBoda (Uganda); Best AgriTech Solution - Farmcrowdy (Nigeria); Best News & Entertainment Solution - Kukulu Game, Qene Technologies (Ethiopia); and Best Blockchain Solution - Custos Media Technologies (South Africa); and Changing Africa Award - Vanu (Rwanda). Nairobi-based start-up Farm.ink won the Feed the Future Fall Armyworm Tech Prize that was announced alongside the AfricaCom awards. That's enough awards for anyone to absorb. See you next year if I don't see you before then.