Africa's demand for Internet links to the rest of the world will grow by an average of 51 percent every year until 2019, ahead of all other regions, according to a forecast by research company Telegeography.
Rapid economic growth and wider Internet use will drive the increase in demand, which will be met mostly by turning on unused capacity in existing cables, according to Telegeography analyst Erik Kreifeldt. Terrestrial links are in demand partly because much of Africa still relies on satellite, which is far more expensive per bit than wired broadband, he said.
Most Internet bandwidth between continents is provided by undersea cables built and financed by groups of service providers. From Africa, most of those links go to Europe. Other carriers pay to tap into those cables and link their customers to the Internet. In some parts of Africa, running cables from coastal areas to the interior is a challenge so satellite remains the major Internet source, Kreifeldt said.
The capacity of international cables landing on African shores is just a fraction of the bandwidth available between Europe, the U.S. and Asia. After seven years of the growth that Telegeography forecasts, from 2012 through 2019, Africa will have 17.2Tbps (bits per second) of links to the outside world. That's up from just 957Gbps in 2012 but will still be only about one-quarter of the international capacity of Latin America and less than that of Canada, according to Telegeography.
The hunger for the Internet varies among African countries. Through 2019, bandwidth demand is expected to grow fastest in Angola, at 71 percent per year; Tanzania, at 68 percent; and Gabon, at 67 percent.
Many new cables have been built to Africa and around the continent in the past several years, giving service providers excess fiber capacity that can be turned on when needed, Kreifeldt said. As that fiber gets lit up and supply rises, prices should fall for enterprises and other users in African countries, he said. However, due to relative scarcity, a given amount of bandwidth between Africa and Europe costs about 10 times as much as the same size connection between Europe and North America, he said. Africa's bandwidth gains aren't expected to shrink that gap.
While Africa leads in growth, demand for international network links will rise at a fast pace in all parts of the world, Telegeography says. It projects Latin America and the Middle East to grow at 37 percent per year, while Asia exceeds 30 percent and even Europe and North America, the best-served and slowest-growing regions, will boost their bandwidth by nearly 30 percent per year.
Africa is home to some of the fastest-growing economies in the world, including Ethiopia, Cote d'Ivoire and Rwanda, according to the World Bank. In April, the bank forecast average annual growth of more than 5 percent in sub-Saharan Africa through 2015.