Does Africa have the telecommunications backbone to support Artificial Intelligence?

By Ernest Amoabeng Ortsin*

Source: Pixbay

In 2018 the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) issued a report which indicated that only 24.4% of Africans were Internet users, as compared to 51.2% of the global population who have Internet access. Although there has been a vast improvement in Internet penetration in Africa since 2005 (when only 2.1% had access to the Internet), it is still abysmally low when compared with the rest of the world.

In the global north, specifically in Europe and in the Americas, the ITU report further noted that Internet usage is about 79.6% and 69.6% respectively. In the Commonwealth of Independent States and in the Gulf region, the proportion of the population using Internet is 71.3% and 54.7% respectively, whereas in Asia and the Pacific regions it is about 47%.

The above data show clearly that Africa is trailing the rest of the world when it comes to Internet access and usage. Several factors account for this, but chief among them is the unavailability of adequate telecommunications infrastructure, including terrestrial optic fibre networks, submarine cables, satellite communication, mobile communication, digital terrestrial broadcasting, data centres, telecentres, and smart digital devices.

Indeed, according to the African Development Bank (ADB) the continent generally has a huge infrastructure deficit that requires investments of between US$130 and US$170 billion annually to resolve. These deficits are most pronounced in terms of transportation, education, health, telecommunications, etc.  Presently, the investment gap to meet these deficits is between US$52 and US$92 billion. Of the required investments, the information and communications technology (ICT) sector needs amount to US$4—7 billion.

It is significant to note that much of the funding for infrastructure in the ICT sector in Africa comes from foreign direct investment (rather than the local private sector or governments). This puts the continent at a disadvantage as foreign investors are determining which parts of the countries to invest in. Owing to this situation, more often than not, the investments centre around national capitals and other major towns (with viable economic activities), leaving the remote and rural areas underserved. It is therefore not surprising that, according to the African Union (AU), an estimated 300 million Africans live more than 50km from a fibre or cable broadband connection.

It is important to underscore that AI projects are cost-intensive. And, in that sense, the question of an infrastructural backbone to support AI in Africa needs deeper examination. For example, the rollout of “fifth generation” (5G) technology has been associated with AI in the sense that it will make it possible for large volumes of data (including images) to be transported at high speed, with high quality, over long distances. However, given that African countries have struggled for more than two decades to make available “third generation” (3G) and “fourth generation” (4G) technologies to their populations, there are concerns about how readily 5G technologies will become available in the African tech space? Already, it is reported that more than 60 countries have rolled out 5G technologies around the world. As at April 2021, only South Africa and Kenya had rolled out the technology in Africa.

A recent report by Research and Markets has noted that, “the global 5G infrastructure market will grow with a cumulative annual growth rate (CAGR) of 64.1% between 2019 and 2025, with an estimated value of US$1.9 billion in 2019. By the end of 2020, 5G global infrastructure cost is expected to hit US$2.7 trillion and investing in 5G infrastructure upgrades is estimated to cost around US$1 trillion.

Technology experts are excited about 5G because of its potential to revolutionize the digital space. Theoretically, it is expected to run at a peak speed of 20 Gbps compared with the current speed of 4G which is 1 Gbps. It is also expected to have lower latency (the rate at which digital images delay before they are sent) and this will consequently enhance mobile broadband telephony, mission-critical communications, and massive Internet of Things (IoT). According to Cisco Systems:

in healthcare, 5G technology and Wi-Fi connectivity will enable patients to be monitored via connected devices that constantly deliver data on key health indicators, such as heart rate and blood pressure. In the auto industry, 5G combined with machine learning-driven algorithms will provide information on traffic, accidents, and more; vehicles will be able to share information with other vehicles and entities on roadways, such as traffic lights.

In Africa, AI is mainly expected to be deployed in areas such as agriculture, health, education and finance. For example, in agriculture, AI is expected to be used in diagnosis of crop and animal diseases in order to boost food security. In health, it is anticipated that AI with will be used in the diagnosis of ailments to make up for the low doctor-patient ratio. In education, AI is expected to be used to augment classroom learning through online platforms to address the shortage of educators. And, finally, in the financial sector, AI is expected to increase financial inclusion through fintechs.

The AU recently launched a Digital Transformation Strategy For Africa (2020-2030) with the overall objective:

To harness digital technologies and innovation to transform African societies and economies to promote Africa's integration, generate inclusive economic growth, stimulate job creation, break the digital divide, and eradicate poverty for the continent’s socio-economic development and ensure Africa’s ownership of modern tools of digital management.

No doubt, AI has the potential of assisting African countries to achieve the objective of the digital transformation strategy. However, they need to, first of all, invest more into strengthening the telecommunications backbone of the continent.


Ernest Amoabeng Ortsin is an Africa-based researcher with a growing interest in Artificial Intelligence policy research. He studied Political Science at the University of Ghana. He was a participant in the Leading with AI Lab and is a co-founding member of Leading with AI.