How Telecom Can Help Africa’s Financial Recovery in the Wake of COVID-19

COVID-19 has affected us all over the past year and a half. For some, the hardship has been all too personal. While others have remained healthy, COVID-19 has still changed almost everyone’s lives, in one way or another. The financial impact of COVID-19 has left repercussions even in places that had fewer outbreaks.

In Africa, the economy is still hurting from a recession brought on (at least in part) by COVID-19. When Africa’s trade partners had to slow or shut down operations during the pandemic, it had a direct and lasting effect on the African economic sector. Stagnant trade produced ripple effects, leading to lower consumption in Africa and a lower average income per capita. Coupled with lower prices of oil exports, almost no tourism, and other factors, this  led to a serious blow to the African economy.

There are many approaches toward reviving an economy at a time like this. Some countries try to spur spending by offering stimulus packages. Others encourage innovation to breathe new life into the economy. In Africa, focusing on telecommunications advancement is one of the best ways to respond to this economic recession.

Before COVID-19, the African telecommunications landscape was looking promising. A new transatlantic cable was laid to Brazil and Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) was introduced to many urban areas. There had already been a move toward abandoning 3G in favor of 4G, while 5G was being discussed as a possibility in the not-so-distant future thanks to the promise of OpenRAN technologies.

On the flip side, lack of electricity continued to be a hurdle in many remote areas, while 4G prices remained too high for full market penetration. Another negative is that monopolies and duopolies remain the norm in many sub-Saharan countries.

As COVID-19 broke out, telecom began to play a major role in all our daily lives. It allowed for communication between loved ones who could no longer meet physically, and it played a role in distance learning and telecommuting. It was also crucial for spreading health information and safety protocols to a dispersed population, as well as providing remote doctor/patient communication. This was true in Africa as much as anywhere else.

There are several ways telecom advances can prove advantageous in Africa, both to combat the further spread of the COVID-19 virus as well as to recharge the economy and even spur it to greater heights than before the outbreak.

First, telecom is necessary to support digital healthcare, including mobile medical stations and broadcasting of health protocols. A strong telecom system also allows workers and students to telecommute when necessary to maintain social distancing to impede the transmission in offices and schools. In addition, migrant workers had trouble sending money to their families in Africa during COVID-19. Telecom can make this much easier, with infrastructure that allows for better transfer of migrant workers’ remittances.

One example of how telecom in Africa can be improved is provided by Supersonic via MTN, the largest operator in Africa. They are providing wireless broadband connectivity across the continent. Wireless broadband offers bandwidth comparable to fiber-to-the-home, but with far less infrastructure required to connect homes to the network, a huge bonus in a place like Africa, where laying new infrastructure is the biggest challenge.

This will be especially useful in remote areas. One or two towers can supply connectivity for an entire village at exceptionally high speeds. Moreover, by using fixed wireless service, expensive cable is not needed to reach the hinterlands.

Ethernity Networks produces FPGA systems-on-chip that enable such technology. This includes traffic management with over-the-air congestion control and IPSec encryption of the tunnel between the radio and the rest of the network, as well as other required telecom features. FPGAs are ideal for fixed wireless access because of their programmability, even after they have been field-deployed. This enables the unit to be improved from version to version without needing to physically replace components, which can be especially challenging in remote African areas.

COVID-19 has left its mark across the globe. As we begin to recover in fits and starts, it is crucial to establish a strong telecommunications backbone in Africa, both to help it recover financially and to prepare it for any future crises. A strong and vibrant telecom system can be used to spread accurate health information while allowing the economy to keep moving. With technologies like those provided by Ethernity, an advanced telecommunications system throughout the continent can ensure that Africa is well prepared for the post-COVID world.

By Brian Klaff