We caught up with Seacom’s Mark Tinka ahead of Content Delivery World (co-located with OTTtv World Summit on 8-10 November, London, UK) to discuss his current challenges, investment opportunities in CDNs, African trends and more. Find out what he had to say below:
Q: Please give us some background on Seacom for our readers who are not familiar?
SEACOM are a submarine cable system and IP/MPLS service providers on the eastern and southern coast of Africa, with operations in several African, European and Asia Pacific countries. I look after the Engineering department at SEACOM, which is responsible to implementing the technologies that deliver the products and services we provide to our customers.
Q: What are the current challenges that you and the wider business face?
There are a number of challenges in our industry, but the fundamental one is maintaining your relevance in the business, along with the pressures of continuing to find new sources of revenue.
Q: Tell us a bit about the work that you do in such a large continent as Africa, what are the unique problems you’re seeking to address with so many countries on a day to day basis?
The basic problem we are working to fix in Africa is to connect as many of our people to the Internet as possible. With so many countries still not enjoying the use of fibre, experiencing slow Internet access and high prices, we have our work cut out for us to do all that we can, as a business and as a community, to get the continent “connected”, and use technology to improve their lives.
Q:Have you noticed any trends you can share with us?
All trends indicate that Africa will be the fastest growing Internet economy in the next few years.
Despite the lack of terrestrial connectivity, mobile technology has done well connecting millions of Africans to each other, and to the Internet. The trajectory of this continues up and to the right, and shows the huge potential that belies Africa.
Q: Does regulation play a part in your business, and if so, does it help or hinder your ambitions?
Regulation is certainly a major part of the telecommunications industry. While it serves to help us, the challenges with regulation in Africa are that there are different countries, each with their own view on how the industry needs to be regulated in their own economies.
Considering that the Internet is borderless, there is a dire need for the different regulators in the various regions in Africa to come together and define cohesive policy that enables connectivity for its people. There is some activity going on in this regard, but there is still much room for improvement.
Q: We’re consuming more and more content on demand on multiple devices. What’s the infrastructure situation like at the moment with regards to stable power and all the necessary prerequisites? What’s the most pressing need that you see?
There are several infrastructure challenges in Africa at the moment. Although they are being addressed, the climb is uphill:
- Lack of or expensive metro and long haul fibre infrastructure.
- Ageing and poor electricity infrastructure which leads to outages and an inability to satisfy demand.
- Insufficient human resources and skills to leverage technology.
- No availability of carrier-neutral data centres.
Q: Is there enough investment in CDNs and the network edge? If not, what can be done to incentivise this? What are the stumbling blocks to investment?
While a number of content and CDN networks have recently deployed their infrastructure in Africa, it is still a very small drop in the ocean compared to what is happening elsewhere in the world. The net result is that, in general, the experience of using the Internet in most places in Africa is quite poor.
Expensive network access and a lack of data centre facilities contributes, in large part, to why CDN’s and content networks are not moving into Africa quickly enough. However, there are significant improvements going on every day, and interest is growing, with the major players already on the continent, and more to follow.
Some parts of Africa will see growth in this area faster than others, but every step counts.
Q: With rising costs in infrastructure, service providers are generally looking at wireless solutions as a way to keep costs under control, and increase take up of next gen services. What are your thoughts on this?
Wireless solutions do have their place in the communications scene, but given the challenges of delivering high-bandwidth services on that medium, investments can be significant as technologies continue to evolve.
Fibre is still the best technology for the long term, but the fact remains that it is more expensive to deploy in the short term, and takes time. This is wireless is a better solution to get more people connected quicker for cheaper. The challenges for wireless only emerge when bandwidth needs increase. The trick will be for the wireless industry to continue to develop newer and faster technologies without necessarily increasing the costs for operators and consumers.
Q: Will Seacom be involved in any 5G build experimentation or build out? How do you see 5G and next generation networks play out in Africa?
At this time, SEACOM will not be directly involved with any 5G experimentation, as we are not a wireless service provider. However, we shall be working very closely with our wireless partners in enabling them to ensure they are ready for when 5G and other state-of-the-art wireless technologies make their debut.
Q: With countries such as Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa leading the way, do you see the “halo” effect of this tech transformation? If so, what has this done to inspire or transform them?
Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa are leading the way in Africa for 3 major reasons:
- They are countries which land submarine cable systems.
- They are countries with progressive economic and regulatory conditions for the telecommunications industry.
- They have large populations.
Regional countries that trade with these countries are gaining significantly from the path they have taken to success. But while they may have smaller populations or be landlocked, the one area where they can certainly improve is providing an operating climate where the telecommunications and ICT industries can thrive. A good example of this is Rwanda, and the way their government have made ICT a cornerstone of not only their recovery, but progress.
Q: What are the general investment opportunities you see and what kind of partnerships would you be looking for to move the continent forward?
Africa is fresh ground, and while it is a challenging environment from various angles, almost of direct or indirect sector that supports ICT is an investment opportunity. Network infrastructure, data centres, training centres, energy, venture capitalization, transport, education, etc.
The continent hosts over 1 billion people, and growing. The opportunities are certainly present.
Q: There’s a concerted push of 4K hardware and software/content delivery into the market, when do you think the audience will be ready for this and what will you still need to do in order to deliver on this push?
The audience is always ready for higher-definition video, the problem is the tools to get us there.
4K panels are now becoming much more available and cheaper, but still out of reach of most people.
Mobile phones are now able to display and record content in 4K, but the wireless networks still cannot deliver the sustained bandwidth that is required to stream 4K media to them. 5G will help in that area, but that is going to take some time.
For personal consumption, 4K content is still not rife, and with video now moving to VoD (Netflix and friends), most people will not be able to afford the bandwidth required to enjoy 4K content, even though they may have all the tools in their homes.
So there is still quite some way to do. Most people are still wrapping their heads around Blu Ray, and while that is now being overtaken by VoD, I think we are at least another 7 to 10 years in Africa before all the pieces come nicely together for the majority of Africa to enjoy 4K content. As always, I hope to be wrong, to the benefit of our continent.
Q: What are you most looking forward to at CDW? What benefits do you feel you get from attending?
I am looking forward to seeing the latest innovations in content delivery, and as always, meeting and networking with key figures in that space.
If you would like to hear more attend Content Delivery World from 8-10 November where Mark will be discussing “Industry Outlook on developing markets – making use of the short term investment opportunities for CDNs” on conference day two.