Will improvements in internet technologies address Africa’s slow-internet problem?

The internet has transformed the world as we know it. With a fast connection and capable device, whatever information you require is just a click away. Unfortunately, you require much more than a click in some countries; patience is needed as well.

In countries with the slowest internet speeds, it takes days to successfully download a high definition video. Unfortunately, most of these countries are in Africa. Internet speed as well as cost of accessing the internet is a major limitation to businesses, and for Africa, internet connection is limited by a lower penetration rate when compared to the rest of the world.

Reports by Open Signal in its Global State of Mobile Networks, show that operators in South Africa offer the fastest Internet speed across Africa at 9.93Mbps. This is, however, 45.2Mbps short of Singapore, which ranks highest on the global broadband speed with 55.13 Megabits per second (Mbps). Ivory Coast is next to South Africa at 7.64Mbps, and Morocco is third place with a speed of 7.36Mbps, followed closely by Tunisia with 7.21Mbps. Kenya is fifth in Africa at 6.75Mbps, then Ghana stands at 4.81Mbps and Nigeria at 4.13Mbps. Leading the list from the rear is Garbon 0.41Mbps, Burkina Faso 0.49Mbps, Democratic Republic of Congo 0.55Mbps, Somalia 0.62Mbps, and Congo at 0.72Mbps.

For better context of how slow internet is in Africa, a survey on Quartz measures how long it would take to download a HD movie with a size of 7.5 GB. While it will take less than 20 minutes in Singapore, it’ll take more than a day in DR Congo, Burkina Faso and Gabon, the three-worst ranked African countries.

Measurable parameters such as the number of ISP subscriptions, overall number of hosts, IXP-traffic, and overall available bandwidth all indicate that Africa is way behind the “digital divide”.

When the 4G internet connection was rolled out, it promised fast internet connection, much better than 3G. The speed, however, still lagged in Africa compared to the other continents. Then came 4G LTE which promised an even faster connection, and the story is the same.

Now 5G internet connection, which is expected to provide internet connections that are least 40 times faster than 4G LTE has been released. The 5th-Generation Wireless Systems (abbreviated 5G) is the marketing term for technologies that satisfy ITU IMT-2020 requirements and 3GPP Release 15. Key features of 5G include high throughput, low latency, high mobility and high connection density.

5G promises to use additional spectrum in the existing LTE frequency range (600 MHz to 6 GHz) and Millimetre wave bands (24-86 GHz), which can support data rates of up to 20 gigabits per second (Gbps). The wireless System will use Massive MIMO (Multiple Input Multiple Output) to significantly increase network capacity.

As the world waits for the official 2020 debut of 5G connectivity, the question remains, will the impact of a higher broadband be felt significantly in places with slow internet connections?

In 2015, while attempting to browse with 4G internet connection in Kenya, David Weekly, Google’s product manager, noticed that although the internet connection was excellent, many websites still loaded slowly. After a thorough investigation, he realized that Facebook and Google Kenya were reaching him from London while Apple was transmitted from Paris and Twitter was coming all the way from Atlanta, Georgia.

Data travels fast, but when compared with the speed of light, data travels 31 percent slower. And given that most of these data have to travel across various continents, it becomes even slower. For every link you try to access on a web page, your device sends a request that is routed to a server where the web page is hosted, and then data for the page you clicked is sent back to you.

With the new Google Go application, 5G internet connection, or an even better 5G LTE (when eventually invented), if the continent keeps hosting its web pages on other continents, the problem of slow internet connection in Africa will never truly be solved.