Don't predict African broadband growth with consensus and conventional wisdom

2 June 2013 by Steve Blum
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African traffic coming thicker and faster.

Cisco’s latest Visual Networking Index (VNI) shows global data traffic tripling over the next five years, growing to a level of 121,000 petabytes per month. North America and the Asia-Pacific region are the the big hitters, then and now, each accounting for roughly a third of total Internet traffic. Africa and the Middle East, on the other hand, barely registers. The report projects faster growth there, but even so that region’s share of global data movement will only go from about 2% of the total to 3%.

The VNI is a mash up of projections from many different sources, as well as data collected by Cisco. It’s a good technique for finding a consensus view of future trends when change is incremental, even if it is rapid. But since it favors conventional wisdom over intuition and insight, it’s not a very good way to get a handle on growth prospects in markets where relatively small initiatives can create significant disruption. That’s why I think it’s understating the growth prospects for Internet traffic in Africa.

Mobile networks are healthy and expanding in both scope and capacity; fixed wireless trials, including some led by Google, are likely to lead to a burst of broadband adoption, particularly in urban areas. Submarine cable projects are weaving a fiber necklace around the continent. When the two biggest limiting factors – affordable international back haul and reliable last mile networks – are removed, the result will be localised explosions in broadband uptake and usage. Not unlike what happened ten to fifteen years ago in the developed work as DSL, cable modem and fiber service replaced dial-up access in local market after local market.

Africa’s share of world population is 15% and growing. It’ll take more than five years to get to where it accounts for a comparable level of global Internet traffic, but not fifty years or more, which is what Cisco’s forecast implies. A jump to something more like 5% in five years would see the continent pull more or less even with the rest of the world within a generation. That’s doable and, I believe, likely.