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A Brief History of Telecommunications in Africa

21 August, 2013
Jabulani Dhliwayo
August 21, 2013

From time immemorial, Africans have always had the propensity to communicate with each other. Ancient Africans developed several means of communication, some of which had a significant impact on the way the rest of the world communicated. They included talking drums, town criers, drawings in curves of Southern Africa, and the hieroglyphics of the ancient Egyptians.

When Africa was colonised around the 1870s, the colonialists brought with them more modern forms of communications. At the time, telegraphy was well established in Europe and America and it was quickly introduced in Africa. It did not take long before Telegraph lines were deployed along railway lines to connect administrative centres to important towns. Telegraphy was also used for railway signalling.

It did not take long after the invention of the telephone by Alexander Graham Bell in 1874 for telephony to be introduced in some African colonies. For example, the first telephone service in Bloemfontein, South Africa, was established in 1891 to connect the railway office and municipality buildings.

But the new telecommunication technology was never brought to Africa for the general use of the African people. It was intended primarily for the communication of colonial administrators in the capital cities with colonial centres within colonies. Telegraphy was also used for controlling the colonies and in some cases to coordinate defence against internal uprisings and invasion by other powers.

There were never any intentions to create an intra-African network to connect African countries to one another, unless this served colonial purposes. For example, inspired by the imperialistic dreams of Cecil John Rhodes, the British South Africa company constructed a railway and telegraph lines linking South Africa, Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) and Katanga in the Belgian Congo (Democratic Republic of Congo). It then became possible for these countries to communicate directly with each other.

Even after many African countries became independent, there were no immediate changes to the way African countries communicated with each other. But at least some African leaders were cognisant of the need to interconnect African countries to one another as a way to foster corporation and boost economic development. In 1962, the Pan African Telecommunication network (PANAFTEL) was conceptualised in Dakar, Senegal.

Following lots of bureaucracy and many meetings, it took more than a decade to implement the PANAFTEL project. The Organisation of African Union, the Pan African Telecommunication Union and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa with support from the ITU, UNDP, UNESCO, World Bank and other institutions came up with project funding for PANAFTEL. African countries were to be connected by a combination of copper wire and microwave links.

Meanwhile, some co-axial submarine cables had arrived in Africa and a few were connecting several African countries. The first submarine cables got to North Africa as early as 1956 but it was not until 1969 that sub-Saharan Africa was connected by submarine cable. SAT-1, running from Melkbosstrand, Cape Town, South Africa to Sesimbra, Portugal was completed in 1969 and ATLANTIS which ran from Dakar, Senegal to Burgau, Portugal was completed in 1982.

Meanwhile, the first satellite communications covering Africa was introduced. Intellisat III had been launched over the Indian Ocean by 1969 and covered the African continent. Africans could then communicate with the rest of the world either via submarine cable or satellite.

By 1987, there were 35,000 km of microwave links; 8,000 km of co-axial submarine cable links; 43 international switching centres; and 41 of the member countries had at least one satellite earth station. Communication between many African countries and the rest of the world was now possible using a combination of technologies, terrestrial copper wire, microwave links, co-axial submarine cable and satellite systems.

Unfortunately, even with so much progress, many African countries could still not communicate directly. Most calls from one African country to another were routed through Europe and North America at very high cost. Calls from Brazzaville in the Republic of Congo to Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, would be routed through Paris and Kinshasa. Brazzaville and Kinshasa are on opposite banks of the same river!

During the deployment of the PANFTEL network, it became obvious that coordinating a continental network of copper and microwave links throughout Africa was a mammoth task. There was an acute shortage of telecommunication skills, there were language barriers such as French and English that slowed down cooperation between countries and in some cases there was just lack of political will by governments to move the project forward. An attempt to decentralise the project to regions of North, East, Southern, Central and West Africa still did not get the intended result. Moreover, many African countries had established earth satellite stations and could communicate more effectively by satellite without the hassle of building copper networks.

For more on PANAFTEL, read Models for the Development of Regional Telecommunications Networks in Africa.

By the time PANAFTEL was being deployed, there were a number of technological breakthroughs that would change how communications would be done. These included the Internet, fibre optics and powerful personal computers. Africa had to look beyond copper and microwave technologies and embrace optical fibre that was now being rapidly deployed elsewhere in the world.

A number of fibre optic cables started reaching Africa as early as 1992 with EURAFRICA connecting Casablanca, Morocco to St Hilaire, France; Sesimbra, Portugal and Funchal, Madeira. In sub-Saharan Africa, SAT-2 fibre optic cable replaced the decommissioned co-axial version, SAT-1, in the same year. About 10 years later, Sat-2 gave way to SAT-3/WASC/SAFE which connected South Africa to Portugal through several West African countries and to the Far East.

When SAT-3/WASC/SAFE was inaugurated by President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal in 2002, Africans had become very conscious that fibre optic networks were critical for boosting ICTs in Africa and lowering the cost of communication. ICTs were quickly being acknowledged as a vehicle for sustained economic development, especially after the UN propounded the Millennium Development Goals in 2000. Unfortunately, SAT-3/WASC/SAFE was exorbitantly priced and most African service providers could not take advantage of the cable. Moreover, there was no submarine cable serving the east coast of Africa.

A tremendous amount of push by Africans through different forums such as the ITU Africa events and the Kigali protocol for a well-connected Africa, more submarine cables such as SEACOM, EASSy, TEAMS, Globacom, Main1 and several others were deployed. Today, there are over 6 submarine cables representing 20Tbps serving sub-Saharan Africa. To match the submarine capacity, there is a rapid deployment of terrestrial transmission networks consisting of optical fibre and microwave links which now stand at 700 000km.

On the access end of the African telecommunication networks, there is also rapid deployment of mobile networks. Mobile subscriptions have grown to about 750 million by 2012 from very little in 2000, prompting communications in Africa at a level never before imaginable. In their deployment of mobile access networks, Africans are leapfrogging legacy technologies and embracing cutting edge innovative technologies. Africans are reportedly ahead of Europe in their deployment of Long Term Evolution (LTE).

The rapid development of telecommunications in Africa post Y2K will trigger innovative new applications that will help Africa solve some of her problems. Kenya’s Safaricom innovation of revolutionary mobile money transfer, M-PESA, for example, will forever change how money is transferred in Africa, and indeed in the whole world.

While so much has been accomplished in African telecommunications, more is yet to be done. A huge digital divide still exists between Africa and the rest of the world necessitating the acceleration of network deployment, especially terrestrial fibre optics, if Africa should get closer to bridging the digital divide.

For more on the history of submarine cables, see History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications.


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