Backbone network infrastructure to carry communications traffic between fixed points in the networks is limited, thus constraining the development of broadband Internet. Broadband Internet requires high-capacity backbone networks, typically using fibre-optic cables. The limited extent of these networks is a constraint on the development of the broadband market in Africa.
Considerable variation exists across the region in how markets for domestic backbone infrastructure operate. In many countries, both implicit and explicit constraints limit the development of backbone networks, thus hindering the development of broadband.
Countries that have fully liberalized the market for backbone networks have seen rapid growth in infrastructure competition. In Nigeria, at least four of the major operators are developing high-capacity fibre-optic cable networks capable of supporting high-bandwidth services, and a similar pattern is emerging in Kenya.
These networks are concentrating on major urban areas and on interurban links where the majority of customers are. If high-capacity backbone networks are to extend beyond these areas, some form of public support will likely be needed.
High-bandwidth backbone networks are a key part of the investment needed for broadband in Africa. These networks connect towns and cities within countries and across borders. They also link to the international submarine fibre-optic cable networks that carry communications traffic between continents.
Cross-border and interregional connectivity in Africa is currently underdeveloped. One-time investment needs range from $229 million for a minimum set of links to $515 million for an extensive interregional network connecting all African capitals to one another with fibre optic cables. The private sector will provide much of that investment as regional operators connect their networks across borders.
Private investment is also driving international submarine cable infrastructure in Africa. Of the five major submarine fibre-optic cables either already operating or under construction in the region, only one has direct government involvement; four are owned and financed by private operators on commercial terms. These two types of backbone infrastructure are linked. As submarine fibre-optic cables are developed, cross-border links to channel traffic to landing points become more commercially viable.
Aside from routes connecting major urban centres, high-bandwidth backbone networks are unlikely to be commercially viable. Backbone network development in these areas may require some form of public support, either through financial support or through the provision of easier access to existing infrastructure.