10 Nov 2021
Internet connectivity and digital infrastructure play a vital economic and social role globally, helping to deliver education, health care and other key services. Despite real progress in recent years, connectivity in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) is beset by challenges, including barriers to the deployment of digital infrastructure. Much remains to be done to enable SSA to catch up with global connectivity. Expanding the delivery of accessible and affordable internet access requires a constant stream of innovation and efficiency gains in the global supply chain to drive improved performance, diversity and cost-effectiveness of network solutions.
African telecom companies are not short of ambition. In addition to continued investment and experimentation with innovative ways of deploying and operating networks, many operators across the region have also begun trials and/or commercial deployments of open and disaggregated solutions in their transport networks. These solutions include DCSG, one of the technologies incubated within the Telecom Infra Project (TIP). Several rural ‘network-as-a-service’ (NaaS) players have also entered multiple markets in the SSA region, adopting innovative business models and open networking principles to deliver mobile services in previously unconnected areas. Disaggregated solutions are also emerging in other areas, with the first commercial deployment of TIP OpenWiFi in the region having been announced in November 2021. Other niche opportunities such as indoor small cells and enterprise private networks could start to develop in the region, either offered by operators, or neutral host infrastructure providers.
Although many of these solutions still rely on the scale and know-how of global vendors, SSA-based companies are increasingly expanding beyond distribution, into the deployment and integration of open and disaggregated network systems, with an eye toward expanding their offerings as large scale and high impact technologies such as Open RAN mature further.
Modelling suggests that large scale deployment of Open RAN could have a positive impact on wider GDP growth in the region. We estimate that this could create an additional USD15 billion in annual GDP by 2030 (in real 2020 USD) and USD44 billion cumulatively from 2021 to 2030.
In the short term, several challenges such as difficult unit economics and operating conditions, operator use of legacy technologies, and reliance on incumbent vendors for systems integration, could make it difficult for operators to adopt Open RAN in the near future, although smaller or newer operators with fewer legacy network constraints could already start deploying these technologies. If these challenges are effectively addressed, then a faster and wider adoption of Open RAN could result in a cumulative GDP impact of USD135 billion by 2030, three times our baseline case estimate.
Going forward, the success of these technologies in SSA will depend both on the ability of the technology and vendors in the ecosystem to respond to the needs of African operators, including by driving efficiency and cost-effectiveness above current solutions. More broadly, support from policy makers, local and regional industry organisations, and financiers including development finance organisations, are all essential to the success of open and disaggregated technologies and their impact on connectivity and the broader economies of countries in the region.