The importance of the role played by NSPs in empowering developing nations to fulfill their potential cannot be underestimated. Connectivity allows learners to access crucial information, which in turn can play a vital role in narrowing the gap between the privileged and the underprivileged. It also helps new and smaller businesses to be more competitive when contending with monopolies. The ability to access information and to be in constant communication to anywhere in the world are taken for granted in many places, but where it is not available, competitiveness suffers.

“The role played by NSPs in this regard is vital,” says Edward Lawrence, Director – Business Development at Workonline Communications. “The more NSPs invest in providing connectivity to a market, the more ISPs are enabled to build out their networks and provide services to end users, which has a direct impact on the economy. Business cases for ISPs are created in this environment where costs are reduced and bandwidth is increased, which means that they can build out their networks and invest money in building local networks to provide services to clients.”

The importance of cheap, and even free, Internet is top of mind in the world today, particularly the developing world, as was evidenced in the recent activism in India against Facebook’s bid to launch free Internet. The Free Basics programme, which would provide free access to content handpicked by Facebook has received heavy opposition from net neutrality activists who labeled the initiative as “poor Internet for poor people”. The message was clear: do not presume that developing countries will simply accept services that put them at a disadvantage to their developed peers. Facebook has since announced a similar plan to provide free satellite Internet for sub-Saharan Africa, to launch in the second half of the year, and similar concerns about favoured content have been voiced.

Internet connectivity enhances business opportunities in a number of ways. It enhances the speed and quality of information flows, which drives down transaction costs, it leads to innovation and the implementation of new business processes, it opens up the doors to OTT services such as mobile banking, it provides access to new markets, and allows for increased job specialisation. It is therefore important that developing countries do not only see increased internet connectivity, but that data networks are up to scratch in terms of the speed and quality.

The gains that are being made in Africa in this regard have been on the increase and are now gaining momentum.

“The biggest driver in the wholesale Ethernet market is for data access layer services, which is in turn driven by the global operators setting their sights on Africa,” says Ben Maddison, Technical Director at Workonline Communications. “Historically, these players would pack an African site into a big global deal that they are working on, without going after the African market exclusively. However, we have seen that change in a dramatic way of late.

“A few years ago, none of the top 10 IP transit providers had any points of presence (PoPs) in Africa, now half of them have at least one PoP. We receive requests on an almost weekly basis from new carriers who we have not worked with before to enter into discussions for access services.”

NSPs provide the vital link between carriers and end customers. Despite the fact that opportunities on the continent have been identified and exploited, the market is far from saturated.

“A number of telecommunications providers have done well in beginning to corner the African market, but the opportunities for new entrants remain enticing,” says Maddison. “It is not a market waiting to be grabbed, it is a market that needs to be developed.  Because the industry is so dependent on infrastructure, the effective demand does not arise until someone takes the initiative to dig up the roads and highways and install the physical infrastructure.”

“The current footprint of decent quality telecommunication networks on the continent is so sparse that if you install a node in a previously unserved area you have a brand new market to go after. This does not happen in the US, Europe or most of Asia, where in any given building, there are at least 3 or 4 carriers that are able to reach you with decent quality infrastructure.”

South Africa is the leader in terms of penetration, which differs vastly from country to country. Interestingly, the penetration in a country is not necessarily correlated to GDP, but determined by factors such as the regulatory environment and geographical location. Other factors also have a massive impact on the ease with which capacity can be installed.

“Unique challenges per region still persist,” says Maddison. “Load shedding, for instance, has a massive effect on infrastructure development. Every time we build a site we have to put three times more money into batteries than is typically necessary, which ends up contributing to as much as 40% of the cost of a new site. Companies that want to operate in Africa have to be adept at taking these challenges on board.”

Despite these challenges, NSPs have proven themselves equal to the challenge of providing game-changing connectivity networks to the continent for the improvement of over a billion lives.