London — AfricaCom organizer KNect365 said that it has had its biggest event yet with 15,000 visitors going to Cape for Africa's telecoms and communications mega-meet. Russell Southwood attempts the difficult task of trying to give some idea of what went on.
The annual AfricaCom event is rather like an expanding universe that seems to suck in more and more neighboring galaxies. It is not only the massive exhibition and conference that sprawls across two Convention Centre halls but also the Westin Hotel across the road that is completely colonized by the event.
In addition, there are a number of independent "off-site" events (like SES's Industry Day and the Africa Early Investor Summit) that are run either in parallel or fill the preceding Monday.
There is just so much going on that it's impossible to be everywhere at once and to see everyone you want to see. The greatest pleasure is simply bumping into friends and colleagues but the most important thing is the networking and chance encounters. One person I met said that he had a whole bowl of glitter poured over him at a party event and had struggled to get it all off. Now that's what I call sparkling...
What follows below is my summary of what I saw and heard that I think has some significance. Not the run of the mill stuff that companies should be doing anyway. Nor the over-hyped blather that seems to accompany a great deal of doing ICT both with business and Government.
Someone told me that the South African Government (whose Minister Stella Ndbeni-Abrahams attended several days and the Awards) was very committed to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, whatever that means. Globalstar and Nokia announced a digitization platform using 3GPP Band 53 spectrum. It's a very good thing but was described as a "4IR/IoT partnership".
Satellites having their fibre moment
Satellite companies are finally innovating in terms of technology, pricing and business models. One Web had a large stand in the exhibition hall and Hans Koenigman, VP Mission Assurance, SpaceX was at SES's Industry Day. Among other things he talked about the three planned launches in 2021 for SES-owned O3B's new mPower service. As an audience member observed, its Starship rocket really does look like the one used by James Bond villain Ernst Stavro Bloefeld in You Only Live Twice.
According to Stephen Burr, 03B's marketing person, mPower will provide a fibre-like service with a terrabit per second scalable system and the ability to change the up and downlink throughput ratio. The service is planned to start in 2022 and promises near-fibre prices.
Since the next wave of international fibre cables will take low prices (some already sub-US$5 per mbps) even lower, we'll have to wait and see what that means but it's a huge step forward. In one of my conversations with a long time existing satellite capacity buyer, she told me that the lowest existing price was US$200 per mbps. Obviously those are headline prices with all the usual caveats about volume, location and country.
Addressing the cost of devices - KaiOS roll-outs
Low-cost handset vendor KaiOS Technologies made several announcements about rolling out its low-cost handsets. The Smart Kitochi, launched by Vodacom Tanzania is powered by KaiOS is being sold at a discounted price of TZS 48,000 ($20 USD). The device comes with a special offer, which includes a monthly bundle of 4GB data plus access to popular apps such as WhatsApp, the Google Assistant, Facebook, YouTube, and others.
Orange is partnering with itel and KaiOS Technologiesto launch a new 4G version of the Sanza Phone, "Sanza XL". From December 2019, it will be on offer for around US$28 US dollars in Botswana, Cameroon, Côte d'Ivoire, Egypt, Mali and Senegal.
Africell announced the launch of its first 3G smart feature phone, afriphone, powered by KaiOS and will be the first KaiOS-powered device in The Gambia and Sierra Leone, and will also be made available in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. No retail price was given.
MTN rolls out OpenRAN
Somehow Facebook managed schedule its annual Telecom Infra Project event at the same time as AfricaCom 2019 but on a different continent. More of what's happening there in a later issue...
MTN is deploying more than 5000 OpenRAN sites across its 21 African operations.
The sites use OpenRAN technology from Parallel Wireless, and will bring 2G, 3G and 4G connectivity into areas that were previously under connected. Parallel Wireless enables a shift to open, software-based, and virtualised OpenRAN network architectures to overcome these deployment challenges, while also delivering network agility and much lower deployment and maintenance cost.
This is the beginning of the process of digitalizing in a way that is based on IP-thinking and the implications should not be underestimated. At some stage in the not too distant future we may also start to hear about SRV6, the digital standard being developed for telecoms carriers by Cisco, Juniper and Huawei, again more of which in a later issue.
What does it mean? It's about the shift from single vendor, multi-million dollar equipment packages (often with management service contracts) to equipment you can "buy out of the catalog" and plug and play. It's about upgrading using software rather then hardware. It's potentially the disruptor that will bring down long-term capex costs so that every iteration of G does not require a complete rebuild.
Rural roll-out starting to happen?
MTN has announced that it will roll-out 5,000 new rural base stations and the contracts have been announced (again more detail in a later issue). A combination of cheaper satellite prices and vendors with much lower CAPEX for each site mean that what was once good Corporate Social Responsibility PR is now waiting to be heard as more solid business case.
This announcement is linked to the announcement above in two ways: firstly, the base station cost reductions may turn out to have things that can be used to lower the price of base stations in other settings; and secondly, MNOs who have allowed themselves to be almost in the hands of a duopoly of equipment vendors in Africa (Huawei and Ericsson) might also now begin to think harder about how their CAPEX can be reduced by more agile, IP vendor sourcing.
Platforms, platforms, platforms - Suddenly everywhere at greater scale
Upstream's Zero-D platform which provides free access to internet essentials is moving towards100 million users in Africa. MTN's WeChat-like platform dream Ayoba announced it had crested 1 million users and will grown to 2 million next year. Reverse billing based, free internet access platform Moya Messenger has over 1 million users in South Africa. BRCK's free-wifi on transport platform has several million users in Kenya and Rwanda and announced that it will be rolling out in South Africa.
The big question is how many million users do you need to be a regional or global contender against the global platforms like Facebook and Google? The answer is probably tens of millions as brands and ad agencies are both keen to see the international OTT platforms get a bit of competition.
A tough year for VoD streaming
As I moved round AfricaCom I met several of Kwese TV's creditors. It seems that Econet founder and entrepreneur Strive Masiywa lost US$600 million on the venture. Of course, not all of that was on VoD but it sadly proves that a) media in Africa is a tough business to get into (those with long memories will remember GTV); and 2) those who run telcos may not have what's needed to create content businesses.
There were many things that have gone wrong at South African MNO Cell C but one of them was clearly its video streaming service Black, which cost it nearly US$50 million. Clearly somebody sold it as a surefire, short-term investment and if VoD in Africa is anything, it is a long-term play. The large numbers from some other MNOs about their VoD streaming services may not be all that they seem and there may yet be more tears before bedtime.
On a more hopeful note, one of the panelists on the VoD session I ran - Siddhartha Roy, Hungama Video - was saying that the average monthly data use by Jio subscribers was 9GB. By contrast, Safaricom counts someone as an active data subscriber if they use over 100 MB a month. A VoD revolution (indeed an Internet revolution) will not happen until real data prices come down to the level that will encourage this volume of use by users.
Other bits and pieces of interest
Can MNOs do lean and agile? Errr... .maybe not. I'm still hearing horror stories about how slow moving MNOs are with new digital business opportunities... The new Safaricom CEO has vowed to "go back to basics" and looks set to be focusing on core traditional business rather than the ill-executed "digital play" of the Michael Collymore years (RIP)... Digital DRC's recent conference attracted both the President and the Minister and is giving even the perennially pessimistic Congolese food for thought... Unitel and Zap founder Isabel dos Santos was in town and we have an interview for you, again in a later issue... The Telkom Kenya/Airtel merger is stuck because of the corruption investigation. The former has laid off most of its staff and withers on the vine so not surprisingly cynics are suggesting the investigation is politically motivated.
For those of you who enjoy awards, the notable 2019 AfricaCom Awards were:
Connecting the Continent - Liquid Telecom; Changing Lives Award - KaiOS Technologies; Best Digital Entertainment Innovation Award - Telecoming; and
Best Innovation for Enterprise - SqwidNet.
Again most notable AppsAfrica.com Innovation Awards Winners 2019 were: Best African App - Appy Saúde (Angola, you don't many from there); Disruptive Innovation Award - BRCK for MOJA (Kenya); Best HealthTech Solution - 54gene (Nigeria); Best Blockchain Solution - RippleNami (Kenya); Best IoT Solution - Liquid Telecom (Kenya); Best Mobility Solution - Lori Systems (Kenya)
And the Changing Africa Award - Flutterwave (Nigeria).