Kenya's data and smartphone usage fuelling East African connectivity

Mobile payments kiwanjaSpurred by increased connectivity to the world through underwater cables, data usage in Kenya is on the rise with the country's is set to become home to an estimated 4.3mn smartphone users by the end of 2013

Low-end smartphones, which retail at between US$60-70 per set, have also increased access to a large section of the population.

Earlier this year, mobile service firm Safaricom partnered with US-based chip maker Intel to launch an Android-powered Smartphone that retails at US$127, and was coupled with a free 500MB data bundle. The majority of the country's smartphone owners are young, tech-savvy college students who spend a large part of their free time online.

According to a report by the Communications Commission of Kenya (CCK), the market regulator, Internet usage rose by 11.6 per cent in the three months to December 2012, pushed by increased access through mobile phones and competition by service providers. Internet users shot up from 14.5 million to 16.2 million over the same period, said the report.

CCK said that expansion in international Internet connectivity has driven growth, noting that international bandwidth over the period rose by 18.1 per cent. Over the period in review, the total amount of bandwidth available in the country was 906,186 megabits per second (mbps), up from 576,186 mbps in the previous period.

CCK noted that bandwidth usage remained low and there was room for investment. At the same time increased access to smartphones has been instrumental in enhancing Internet usage across the country.

Data indicates that across Africa, more than 80 per cent of Internet users access the online world through their handsets. Analysts said that with the smartphone compounded annual growth rate standing at 43 per cent, their will be almost 100 million Internet users across the continent in 2016. At the same time, investment in undersea fibre optic cables, the expansion of mobile networks to rural areas, and the increasing number of East African owning Smartphones, have all boosted data business across Africa.

In the last few years, East Africa has benefited from the laying of undersea optic fibres ­– namely Seacom, TEAMS and Essay. All have has boosted Internet connectivity in the region. Earlier in 2013, another submarine cable, LION2 (Lower Indian Ocean Network) was launched. The cable, owned by France Telecom-Orange and other partners, will connect the island of Mayotte with broadband for the first time, while reinforcing connectivity in the East Africa region. The 2,700km-long fibre optic cable uses the wavelength division multiplexing (WDM), which is currently among the most advanced technologies used in submarine cables.

Fast Internet connectivity has raised capacity of data handling, creating room for IT start-ups across the region. Experts have, however, said that the data business in the region has ridden on the fast expansion of mobile networks and the presence of smartphones. With the voice market in East Africa almost becoming saturated, firms have targeted the data market – increasing their broadband capacity. Mobile operators in Kenya, such as Safaricom and Orange Kenya, have invested heavily in 3G technology to tap on this emerging market.

"Data consumes more broadband than voice or text. Firms will initially be faced with broadband issues as smartphones increase and demand more bandwidth," asserted telecoms analyst Peter Wanyonyi.

With the potential growth in the subsector, service provider Safaricom has been rolling out its own US$116 million terrestrial fibre network. A tender for the rollout has already been awarded to Huawei and Eriksson, with Safaricom pledging to set aside US$25 million annually for the project. At the same time, Kenya Data Network (KDN) has announced plans to extend its network to Tanzania to connect the capital cities of Nairobi, Dar es Salaam, Kampala and Kigali on a single network.

The 120km fibre link from Nairobi to Namanga on the Kenya-Tanzania border will increase capacity and reduce latency for KDN’s customers, including ISPs, carriers, hones and government organisations.

Mwangi Mumero

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