AfricaCom Blog: DT Publisher Alec Barton’s personal take

Without doubt AfricaCom is among the biggest and most important events for telecoms in emerging markets each year.

This year seemed busier than ever. Despite concerns about the economy in South Africa there was no sign of a let-up in the market growth elsewhere in the continent.

The real action was on the exhibition floor and in meeting rooms with many deals being hammered out. Other than the main plenary sessions the conference seemed quieter than in the past with, as a rough estimate, at least half of the delegates glued to their smartphone screens for most of the speeches. The Ericsson AHUB at least succeeded in whipping up a bit of enthusiasm with whoops and cheering when the results were announced.

What were people talking about during the event? Here are my personal observations.

1. Countries

In no particular order, the up-and-coming markets seem to be DRC, Angola, Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mali and Namibia. There was also more interest in the countries of the Horn of Africa than in the past few years. Liquid Telecom’s land based fibre expansion through southern Africa and into East Africa and the EASSy / WIOCC fibre optic coastal ring are both opening up new opportunities and making the market more competitive.

2. Vendors

Big mergers and collaborations seemed to be the order of the day with Ericsson and Cisco’s recently announced partnership attracting a lot of talk, and the Nokia takeover of Alcatel-Lucent looking increasingly certain for early 2016. Both Nokia and ALU were intent on demonstrating their complete unwillingness to let takeover talk get in the way of business, with a stream of announcements during the show. If uncertainty is the enemy of success there was none of it in evidence there.

Where do these developments leave the Chinese vendors? Huawei, with impressive R&D innovations on show at their booth and a claim to be involved in at least 70% of Africa related deals, look as strong and focused as ever. ZTE clearly relented on their decision not to exhibit at the last minute and booked a stand - smaller than last time...

3. Themes

Data, data and data were the three themes which came up most frequently. With voice revenues static at best and data demand growing at well over 100% annually, it should be no surprise that MNOs in Africa are focused on data. The market is being driven by the relentless fall of smartphone prices. The cheapest 3G devices are currently selling at around US$40, while LTE 4G smartphones are retailing at between US$50 - 60. Technologies and solutions that increase data capacity are most in demand, as much in South Africa as in the least developed countries.

4. Technologies

LTE, network densification with small cells, virtualisation (both SDN and NFV) and CEM with particular reference to cloud and big data analytics were the most talked about technologies. There’s a common theme here, with operators looking to new technical solutions that will achieve the holy grail of improving customer experience in order to reduce their churn rates while also reducing their network operation costs. The market is driven by the big guys - Vodacom, MTN, Zain, Etisalat, Orange etc. - but the power of disruptive entrants with an LTE licence remains an ever-present threat to this supremacy.

5. Digital services

Monetisation is the key to operator success in the post voice, VoLTE era. So there was a huge emphasis on digital / value added services which are only set to grow. One of the more interesting announcements came from Mahindra Comviva, with the creation of a digital services marketplace to connect MNOs with content creators and take out the pain and cost of sourcing, distribution and marketing. What it really shows is that a significant part of the content ecosystem will be local and regional - and that not everything will come from California.

6. Collaboration

That last point leads me neatly to Facebook’s, which two years ago was the devil incarnate to MNOs worldwide. Things have changed on both sides, with a growing realisation that through collaboration, OTTs and operators can build something that benefits them both. You don’t hear much about dumb pipes anymore. Equally’s uptake of capacity on the next AMOS Spacecom satellite launch, scheduled for 2016, shows real commitment to the cause of developing telecoms, and changes the balance between operators and OTTs - who’s for MNOs buying capacity from OTTs?

7. Remote

Underlying all this growth talk, there remains the significant challenge of connecting the unconnected. For years satellite has been seen as the solution, and yet so often has remained the MNO’s last choice. Satellite is the solution MNOs implement when all else fails or, more often than not, when the terms of their regulator-issued license leaves no alternative. It’s partly cost but also the radio mindset of MNO CTOs, I’m told.  So it was good to see some real developments in satellite this year with RascomStar, O3B, AMOS SpaceCom, Yahsat, Onlime and others.

8. Security

Last but by no means least... on everyone’s mind and an issue that affects every deal


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