Tuesday, 16 September 2008

High-Speed Internet Coming to Africa

If you're reading this in Africa, you're one of a few who can. With just 50 million web users across the continent, as few as 5% of Africans access the Internet, a rate far lower than in Asia, Europe or the Americas. In only a handful of African countries do more than 1% of the population use broadband services. (Among OECD countries, broadband penetration averages 18%.) And those services that exist don't come cheap. Broadband costs more in sub-Saharan Africa than anywhere else in the world: consumers in the region spent an average of $366 each month for speedier Internet access in 2006, according to the World Bank. Users in India, meanwhile, paid just $44.

But large-scale efforts to connect the continent are picking up speed. On Sept. 9, O3b Networks — a Channel Islands-based telecoms company backed by Google, HSBC and U.S. cable TV operator Liberty Global — unveiled plans to offer cheap, high-speed Internet access via satellite to developing regions like Africa by the end of 2010. It's not the only ambitious scheme to bring the continent online. In recent months, work has begun on initiatives to connect countries in Eastern and Southern Africa — the only major populated region not hooked up to the global broadband network of fiber-optic cables — to each other and the rest of the world through high-speed lines.

Efforts like these to connect Africa will do more than add friends on Facebook. Boosting connectivity should do the same to countries' social and economic health, stoking trade and granting citizens access to crucial online health, education and government services, economists say. Stymieing the web's expansion in Africa until now: fixed line telephone networks used to transmit Internet services in much of the rest of the world are almost non-existent across the continent. On average, there are only four lines for every 100 people — the lowest rate anywhere in the world. That has left much of Africa reliant on satellites for its web access. But these are costly to use and offer limited capacity. O3b — short for the "other 3 billion" around the world who are unable to tap into the web — plans to deploy cheaper spacecraft by orbiting them at lower altitudes than traditional satellites. That should also speed up connections.

The $700 million project is only part of a flurry of telcom activity on the continent. Amid a push by Africa's leaders and telecom companies to modernize its networks over the next few years, a string of firms have partnered to build the East African Submarine Cable System, some 10,000-km of fiber-optic lines linking 21 countries from South Africa to Sudan. With work on the line started last year, the project is due for completion in 2009. The World Bank's $424 million Africa Regional Communications Infrastructure Program — a complimentary scheme approved at roughly the same time — aims to have all major cities in Eastern and Southern Africa hooked up to the high-speed lines over the next decade.

And in those areas where it's not feasible to extend fiber cables — sparsely populated, rural regions, say — O3b's satellite network will shift information around wirelessly, closing the digital divide still further. "Perhaps half of the entire African population does not live in major cities," says Brian Neilson, research director at BMI-TechKnowledge, a South Africa-based telecoms consultancy. For O3b, "there is a clear gap-closing opportunity."

The success of any such moves, though, assumes a healthy demand for available services. The incredible spread of cell phone use in Africa offers plenty of encouragement. The continent's mobile market has expanded faster than that of any other region over the last five years, averaging annual growth of almost 65%. Revenue generated by each of Africa's almost 300 million cell phone users is three times higher than in Bangladesh, India or Pakistan. And users have been quick to exploit devices for commercial gain. Ghana-based TradeNet matches buyers and sellers of crops by circulating via SMS details of what each is offering to trade; many poor farmers in Tanzania rely on cell phones to gather real-time market prices for their goods. What's more, evidence of surging demand for broadband in other developing countries bodes well for those in Africa. Subscriber numbers in India, for instance, are growing at almost 50% a year.

Still, whizzy schemes to connect millions of Africans can't guarantee users access to the services they need the most. Most of the $23 billion poured into sub-Saharan Africa's information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure between 1996 and 2006 came from the private sector. In one sense, that's positive. Those telecom firms aren't diverting money away from other areas no less hungry for investment. But, says Raul Zambrano, ICT Adviser in the United Nations Development Program's Bureau for Development Policy, "it doesn't address the issue of development." Just as important as connecting poor people to the web: giving them more rapid access to birth certificates, or government health and education services. So while O3b's plan, for one, is "a great start," Zambrano says, "is this sort of investment going to help poor people get services? I think the answer is up in the air ... Who's going to do that? Not Google, not the telecoms," he says. "We need to have the political will to address those gaps through technology." Greg Wyler, founder of O3b, acknowledges effective IT infrastructure requires "multiple components," but insists that O3b's plans are a "critical" part of that. If you're reading this in Africa, you probably don't need Wyler to tell you that.

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