An African calling: how Liquid Telecom is driving a digital revolution
As internet usage soars across Africa, data, voice and IP provider Liquid Telecom is connecting remote areas across the continent via its broadband network. Sebastian Shehadi reports.
Only five years ago, ‘Skyping’ was a luxury, while connection delays were the norm for most Africans, according to the Zimbabwe Independent newspaper. The main problem was (and still is) an infrastructural deficit that is failing to meet the burgeoning demand.
According to the UN agency the ITU, internet penetration in Africa has rocketed from very low levels pre-2009 to 16% of individuals in 2013, and more than 20% in 2015, thanks to cost-cutting marine cables.
However, the proportion of Africans that are online still lags behind the global average and fixed broadband connections remain relatively uncommon. Liquid Telecom is leading the charge to redress these imbalances, and in a unique way.
Big in Africa
Founded more than 12 years ago, Liquid Telecom is majority owned by Strive Masiyiwa, Zimbabwe's wealthiest businessman, and his private Econet Group. Headquartered in Mauritius, Liquid Telecom began as a satellite communications business, but reoriented towards fibre optic connectivity after the success of its first broadband network in Zimbabwe.
CEO Nic Rudnik, named in Global Telecoms Business’s 100 most powerful telecoms giants, says: “Fibre optics are the future of internet access for African people and businesses, providing a platform for digital growth and innovation.”
Indeed, Liquid Telecom aims “to connect every African nation onto a fibre network. Country-to-country connectivity has been an insurmountable challenge for Africa. We’re [going to] make it affordable, easy and quick”, he adds.
This target is quickly becoming a reality as Liquid Telecom continues its remarkable growth. With roughly 2000 employees, it now operates Africa’s largest and fastest independent crossborder fibre network, spanning 12 countries across sub-Saharan Africa through 40,000 kilometres of cable and five undersea connections. The company was recognised as the best African wholesale carrier for 2016 at the Global Carrier Awards in Paris, for the fifth year in a row.
At the end of 2016 Liquid Telecom agreed to buy the South African operator Neotel for $430m. It also entered into a joint venture with national electricity provider Botswana Power Corporation, thereby providing an additional 1500 kilometres of fibre across Botswana, including long-distance routes between the capital, Gaborone, and the north-east city of Francistown.
Looking ahead, Mr Rudnick says Liquid Telecom is “set to purchase Tanzania’s most successful and dynamic internet service providers” and it will continue to look for “further opportunistic acquisitions and partnerships across Africa”.
The company is also focused on connecting Africa to the rest of the world. It will soon start building a new 10,000-kilometre subsea cable linking Africa to Europe, the Middle East and Asia, called ‘Liquid Sea’. This will create a more reliable route and an additional capacity of 20,000 to 30,000 gigabits per second, thereby reducing bottlenecks.
In the short term, Liquid Telecom aims to double its fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) network with an additional 100,000 connections. “We are delivering fibre to areas where reliable internet connections were previously virtually non-existent, bringing a world of information to the remotest communities that can be used to improve education and healthcare, among other benefits,” says Mr Rudnick.
Liquid Telecom was the first company to build a sizeable FTTH service in Africa, starting in Rwanda, Zambia and Zimbabwe before being developed in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. The “breakthrough service” provides up to 100 megabits per second internet access to households and SMEs. These are the fastest speeds in Africa, and comparable to European standards that “until now were reserved only for the largest multinationals at a premium price”, says Mr Rudnick.
Pan-African business, especially in telecoms, presents a combination of geographical and regulatory challenges. Mr Rudnick says: “Crossing borders with new telecoms links has been immensely difficult at times, as has been obtaining the licences and authorisations to build national fibre infrastructure.”
Nonetheless, Liquid Telecom has managed to break into markets before other carriers, for example, by establishing the first fibre connection between South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Dodging the wildlife
The geography of Africa can throw up hurdles, according to Mr Rudnick. “The distances alone present a unique problem. Our network must also navigate through difficult terrain and hold its own against wildlife. Our fibre has been attacked by everything from elephants to giant rats,” he says.
Unusual terrain has led to extraordinary engineering, and Liquid Telecom has established the first fibre links over the Zambezi and Limpopo rivers. It also built the first optic network with repeaters every 400 kilometres instead of every 200 kilometres, thereby critically halving their power consumption in areas where power supplies are sparse.
As a result, the company has managed to connect some of the remotest parts of Africa. This year, to international acclaim, Liquid Telecom launched free Wi-Fi networks to underserved, rural towns across Kenya in a joint initiative with the Kenyan government.
This ‘internet for all’ vision is reminiscent of Mark Zuckerberg’s ideas on global internet access. However, Mr Rudnick maintains his company’s approach is quite different. “We are investing and building infrastructure in Africa. I think we’re still waiting to see action from many of the internet’s visionaries who would like to see internet covering rural areas – so lots of great ideas but minimal investment on the ground.” Liquid Telecom is one company that has bucked this trend.
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