Calestous Juma and the future of African communications

Professor Calestous Juma from Harvard’s Kennedy School leads off the annual luncheon series at the Berkman Center with an overview of policy issues surrounding broadband internet in eastern Africa. Professor Juma has been a pioneer on issues around education and technology on the continent, and we’re lucky to have him here, thinking about ways in which broadband technology is and isn’t transforming East Africa.

To contextualize our conversation, Juma reminds us that the continent is large enough to fit in the US, China, India, Western Europe and Argentina, and to squeeze in the UK. It’s not realistic to scale up pilot projects – connecting South Africa and Mozambique, for instance. We’ve got little infrastructure to build on – power grids and even road grids are radically underdeveloped. The major infrastructure we’ve seen grow is mobile phones, which “provision their own infrastructure”, to a certain degree. To illustrate the problem, he shows the BBC story about a South African consultancy demonstrating that you can transmit data faster via a USB key strapped to a pigeon’s leg than you could download via a Telekom SA line. (Telekom, needless to say, disputes the validity of the test.)


A “speculative” cable map of Africa, showing cables proposed to be built by 2011. A much better .svg version is here.

Professor Juma had the opportunity to see the launch of the SEACOM cable in Tanzania. “I took the trouble to go down into the manhole to actually see the cable. It’s a very modest thing.” Indeed – the actual cable is slimmer than your forearm, a very expensive and very fragile thing. He walks us through some of the existing and proposed cables, mentioning that SAT-3, the West African cable, has less than 5% utilization (I plan to follow up and make sure I understood that figure correctly.) He nods to the London – Lagos cable intended to suplement SAT-3, and new cables, like the Mauritius/Madagascar LION cable.

More visible for most Africans has been the transformation brought about by the mobile phone. A technology that initially was so heavy, it was only useful for the military and had to be carried in a car, is now light, cheap and pervasive. Not only has the mobile phone swallowed the land-line phone business, it’s now likely to swallow the banks, with technologies like M-PESA, which allows inexpensive money transfer from one mobile phone to another.

The driving force between the aggresive timetable to connect Africa more thoroughly to the internet, Juma argues, is the World Cup. To convince Europeans that South Africa could host the cup, there needed to be reassurances that the world would be able to watch the games in realtime. Hence, there’s been intense pressure to improve connectivity. While the cables proposed mostly help urban (and coastal) areas initially, Google’s support for a cluster of middle-earth orbit satellites shows a possible pathway to data services in very rural areas.

The spread of connection infrastructure into Africa now points to the need for devices that can access the internet, content to be delivered and applications. These, in turn, point to the need for institutions, laws and policies to regulate this space, which are currently lagging far behind the technology.

Professor Juma sees dramatic interest on the continent around call centers, and around more creative industries, like animation. (As a side note, Juma wonders whether we’re going to see African entrepreneurs beginning to protect dance as intellectual property, since movement is so critical in African cultures.)

We should expect to see convergence – a world without desktops, the mobile phone as the primary information device – Juma argues. We’re also seeing countries trying to leapfrog into cloud computing, because governments see it as reducing the costs of extending infrastructure. (Juma defines cloud computing as “where you throw everything up, including the kitchen sink. If it rains, you’re in luck. If not, duck, and try again.”)

Making technology mobile and rugged makes it significantly more appropriate for Africa. Juma has been deeply involved in the OLPC project and shows us schoolchildren sitting outside Kigali airport in Rwanda – the airport has one of few open wifi networks the children can use. Perhaps nodding to some of the criticism of OLPC, Juma points out that OLPC has helped spur the netbook movement, and notes that roughly 30 million netbooks will ship this year. But ruggedization affects other technologies as well – he shows us a handheld ultrasound unit that can transmit images to mobile phones.

To embrace the potential of these new technologies, some African countries are creating universities designed to educate a new generation of technologists. Nile University in Egypt is embedded in the Telecoms ministry, supervised by the Education ministry. Ghana has established a new university following the same model. Kenya has built a multimedia university based around a similar model in Malaysia. The idea is to be educating students with contemporary skills, not the skills the education ministries have been teaching for years. “The Kenya government plans to subsdize broadband access by local universities. In exchange universities will be expected to digitize all their collections and make them available online,” Juma was told by Dr. Bitange Ndemo, from the Ministry of Information and Telecommunications of Kenya.


I was struck by the idea that the SAT-3 cable had only seen 5% usage. If that cable usage is so low, why is there such enthusiasm for a web of new cables? Is usage so low simply because SAT-3 is so badly priced? Professor Juma argues that SAT-3 was built to serve a very few users at very high prices. He believes the new cables are being built to serve a much larger audience, with lower per-unit prices. The possibility for monopoly is reduced by having multiple players, he argues, and points to a reduction in broadband pricing of 50% by one South Africa country. Instead, Juma is worried about access devices, and is writing a paper arguing that countries should eliminate duty on refurbished and new imported computers.

Christian Sandvik pushes forward this question about monopolies, wondering if we’re really going to see competitive pricing in East African cables. Professor Juma points out that the TEAMS cable is open access – anyone can buy into the system – and pricing information is supposed to be public.

Rob Faris asks about 03b, a new, venture-backed project to put high capacity data networks above the equator, providing low cost data to developing nations. Professor Juma expects that this won’t be the only MEO constellation of satellites we’ll see, and that with more satellite networks, we’ll see competitive effects. He expects a Chinese network focused on the developing world, and wonders whether the former head of Google China might be heading this new company.

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7 Responses to Calestous Juma and the future of African communications

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  3. Steve Song says:

    Nobody except Telkom (who manage SAT3) know for sure but estimates I have seen of SAT3 usage are more like 50% rather than 5%. Suspect there was a typo.

    Even if 50% (60 Gb/s) of SAT3 is in use, it is still a very interesting statistic given the apparent demand. It suggests a few things to me:

    One, demand for international bandwidth in Africa is still fairly elastic because it is not uniformly perceived as a necessity and because it represents too high a proportion of the average individual’s income when translated into a street price.

    Two, national backbone and local-loop infrastructure is still largely underdeveloped. Obviously African countries are now racing to correct that. A case where “build it and they will come” actually turns out to be true.

    Finally, it shows that bell-headed incumbent telcos, such as make up the ownership of SAT3, still don’t believe in or get the economics of abundance. They should. There is no more telling indicator than the fact that increasingly the most reliable indicator of profitability for mobile operators is the number of subscribers rather than Average Revenue Per User (ARPU), a scarcity indicator.

    As an interesting aside, I see that France Telecom, a major investor in SAT3, are being taught a similar lesson closer to home. :-)

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