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ICT pioneers advance infrastructure to double trans-continental data capacity

Article - March 27, 2016

Angola is still far from achieving nationwide mobile coverage, yet what it has achieved thus far in ICT has been done ahead of many developed countries in some cases such as 4G deployment. Plus, a new fibre-optic network connecting Africa, through Luanda, to Brazil gives the planet more direct international transmission options than ever before


Africa is a world leader in mobile-broadband growth, having increased 20 per cent in 2014 against that of 2 per cent in 2010. Today, Angola aims to be an African power in the communication and information technology sectors.

In order to achieve such a goal, the first Angolan satellite is scheduled to be launched in 2017. Government and local telecoms are joining forces to build and upgrade new technologies in the area.

According to the Angolan Ministry of Telecommunications and Information Technology, the country has 14 million mobile network subscribers, 3 million internet users, and 800,000 devices which are connected through public internet access points.

Unitel is today the biggest mobile phone company in the country, having achieved 10 million customers in 2014 – a large number considering the total population is 24 million people. Led by Isabel dos Santos, the company is currently investing $2 billion in a national and metropolitan network of underground fibre which is connecting businesses and people. Already, Angola boasts some 25,000 kilometres (15,500 miles) of installed optical fibre.

Tony Dolton, CEO of Unitel, is proud to affirm that the company’s mobile networks are as good as any in Europe in terms of network data connectivity and quality of calls. Being a vast country with a relatively small population, however, it is quite expensive and almost impossible to attain full geographic coverage, especially in the rural and poorer areas.

Nevertheless, new services and products are being developed to assist people in this segment to make purchasing and using mobile devices more affordable. These include special discounts, incentives and lower cost yet high-quality phones to help people stay connected.

“We really consider ourselves as enablers,” says Mr Dolton. “We help people and businesses to connect. For the consumer it is personal and for businesses it is business enablement. In education it makes better education possible and in the health sector it can enable better and more sophisticated health services.”

“We had 4G services in the capital city before the UK had even issued its 4G licences to operators,” he continues. In fact, Unitel was the first to launch 4G networks on the entire African continent. “The concept of investing for the future has been with us a long time. LTE and fibre are both strategic investments for the future of Angola,” says the CEO.

The government invited private operators to co-invest in a new cable system to be built by Angola Cables, which will transform Angola into an African telecommunications hub.

“We had 4G services in the capital city before the UK had even issued its 4G licences to operators... LTE and fibre are both strategic investments for the future of Angola”

Tony Dolton, CEO of Unitel

Antonio Nunes, CEO of Angola Cables, mentions how difficult it was to develop the mobile infrastructure from scratch 14 years ago. “Back then not even the roads were ready yet,” he says. Today, the country relies on its expanded and improved intermodal transport system to commercialise goods, and internet connectivity is key to helping businesses flourish.

Angola Cables became one of the biggest investors in Western African Cable System (WACS) and Mr Nunes highlights how top-flight quality is fundamental for the company. “If we want to have a strong future, we have to invest strongly on the basis of everything we are doing.”

According to the executive, the capacity of the South Atlantic Cable System (SACS) – which is due to be up and running by the end of 2016 – is twice more than the capacity used today in the North Atlantic.

Angola is now able to use and sell its capacity of WACS. For this reason, the upgrade, which will connect Luanda to Fortaleza in Brazil, will mean a new era for global communication. Once the cables are installed, Angola Cables will be the first to offer connection from South America to the world without having to go through the USA, and Europe will be able to reach South America through Africa.

Another important step is to build data centres. The country already has one, which is to be enlarged. According to Mr Nunes, if African content is in Africa, people will be able to share it more easily and affordably.

“For example, if I have a site that gives information about weather reports and it is an Angolan site, but the rural people have to get that information via Europe, the price they pay to download the data is so huge that they will not use the site,” he explains. “However, if that content is in Angola, farmers will be able to get the content very fast and at very low price, so they will use the internet much more.”

This will automatically bring benefits for the rural people who are using this content, while also benefiting operators as internet demand will be higher.

Angola Cables is planning to build another data centre in Fortaleza. The connection between Angola and Brazil goes beyond their strategic locations. Digital content is also important, bringing a new kind of business to Angola and Africa. The aim is to produce and commercialise this new market between Angola and Brazil, countries with many similarities.

“In agriculture, for example, they have the same products that we have, the same problems and the same challenges,” explains Mr Nunes. “Most of the rural people in Brazil are poor, as in Africa. So, we have to share know-how, content and information. This is one of the big things that SACS will be promoting.”

Manuel Homem, Director of the Centre for National Information Technologies, has listed agriculture, climate adaptation, financial services and health as sectors that could benefit from IT to help combat poverty. Mr Homem cited Kenya’s agricultural project which sends harvest information via mobile and Malawi’s GPS system for choosing a better plantation spot as examples to be followed in order to create jobs and eliminate short-term poverty.

Another success story is in the country itself, as Unitel recently collaborated with the government in an initiative to support the emergency services at hospitals with back-up communication equipment.

Now that roads and trains are able to get to the countryside, it is not only about delivering the latest fertilisers. Workers need to be trained and educated, managers have to be taught to better understand soil and crop rotation and how to develop sustainable farms in order to grow improved products, which will be transported and sold in Angola, Africa and throughout the world.

Education and training are valuable words as companies focus on achieving sustainability. “I do not see ourselves as a bank for good causes,” says Unitel’s Mr Dolton, “but rather we enable people to create a sustainable ecosystem.”

With 99 per cent of Angolan employees, Unitel has its own academy where workers develop both their technical expertise and map out their careers.” Similarly, Mr Nunes mentions the importance of preparing Angola Cables’ employees to create, operate, and maintain infrastructure.