Need for speed

HR-shutterstock_398424202-[Converted]Internet speeds are improving on the continent. But can pricing strategies and infrastructure meet the public’s demands, wonders Nkem Ifejika

In the last few years during regular travels to sub-Saharan Africa, there has been one constant – Internet speeds have steadily improved. Of course, there are the occasional blips, but the general trend is good. Watching videos is now more seamless over both 3G/4G and ISP networks. I can upload pictures and even broadcast live streaming video much more easily. As is usually the case in these instances, the infrastructure lags behind the demand. Once bandwidth is provided, it gets swallowed up.

Just a few weeks ago, Liquid Telecom announced they had completed their new network in Nairobi. Homes and businesses can now enjoy speeds up to ten times faster than before. It’s the kind of development that the entrepreneurs in Silicon Savannah desperately need. Building apps is a wonderful thing, but if prohibitive Internet speeds prevent people from downloading and using the apps, these entrepreneurs lose their raison d’être. When you drive around Nairobi (and are invariably stuck in traffic), you’re bombarded with all manner of e-commerce advertising, from shopping to banking activities.

It’s a similar story in Nigeria, where Smile is continuing to roll out high-speed mobile broadband, and expanding beyond big cities such as Abuja and Lagos. The seal of approval for the progress made can be found in the recent official entry of the video streaming giant Netflix into Africa. That is not to say the speeds are good enough, as the company has had to employ video compression technology to deliver their product to the continent. But there is enough for Netflix to believe they can provide a good service for consumers. They’re a company known for wanting their users to have as good an experience as possible, and have in the past placed restrictions based on Internet speeds.

The two main challenges to rolling out decent high speed Internet have been the cost of installing the infrastructure and the price to charge consumers. Firstly, governments have often been a hindrance to the development of Internet infrastructure, seeing it as a way to make money from ISPs rather than a potential public good. Secondly, the glut of broadband cables landing on Africa’s shores suggests there’s now a potential overcapacity of bandwidth and companies are trying to work out their pricing strategy. Too cheap and they fail to make money, too expensive and they price out too many people.

Mobile phone companies are already well versed in pricing data. They now provide a range of packages that are very reasonable and compare favourably to what you’d get in countries with more developed infrastructure. I suspect ISPs will eventually do the same, all we have to do is wait.