(HN, April 19, 2010) Farida Aziz, a Pakistani aid worker based in Nigeria’s remote northern states, tries to keep in touch with friends and family back home via Skype and Facebook chat. But conversations are often kept short, due to the slow and fickle nature of her Internet connection.
Such stories are commonly heard across West Africa as people in the Sub-Sahara wait for the day to have fixed and wireless Internet connections at faster than dial-up speeds.
The continent has a long way to go - in terms of Internet penetration and broadband access - before it catches up with the rest of the world. A 2009 study by Internet World Stats found that Africa has an Internet penetration rate of only 6.7 percent, compared with the world average of 24.7 per cent. No African country figures on the list of top 49 countries with the highest Internet penetration rate, and nine have penetration rates lower than one percent.
And for the few that do have access, bandwidth costs for Africans are 50 times or higher than in developed countries. The lack of reliable power supplies - in countries like Nigeria - limits the time the average person can spend online - even with broadband access.
“Developing broadband in Africa will reduce our dependence on foreign owned satellite systems,” said Ernest Ndukwe, Executive Chairman of Nigeria’s Communications Commission. “This will help in removing the need to pay exorbitant satellite transit fees.”
But according to a World Bank official change is just around the corner, with massive undersea cables being laid that will connect this side of Africa with the huge broadband backbones that have the potential to catapult many African countries firmly into the digital age. Spurred in part by the 2010 Soccer World Cup in South Africa this summer, various submarine cables are due to go live in 2010, some of them funded by pan-African telecommunications consortiums.
In July 2009, the Seacom submarine fibre optic cable for East Africa went live. Privately-funded and three-quarters African-owned, and is the first to provide broadband to countries in east Africa, which previously relied entirely on expensive, slower, satellite connections.
And by the end of this year, Nigeria’s Main-One Cable System will run 7000 kilometres from Portugal to Nigeria with landings along the route to various West African countries - delivering 1.92Tbps of bandwidth, equivalent to 10 times the available capacity of the existing fibre optics cable serving the West coast of Africa. It will offer about 200 times the satellite capacity currently available across sub- Saharan Africa. Further phases will double the length of the cable, bordering West Africa all the way to South Africa.
Aside from a more robust telecoms infrastructure, regulatory reform in several West African countries are opening the doors to competition - and in turn - driving down costs for consumers. In Nigeria alone, at least a half dozen mobile phone companies compete for customers, especially in the pre-paid mobile phone and wireless data sectors. The availability of better content - especially in local languages and dialects - are expected to drive up demand for value added services.
All this is not to say that the entire population of the continent is benefitting from the increased broadband. At a conference last year in Russia called “Addressing the Digital Divide for Science in Africa,” experts agreed that vast proportions of people, including academics, have yet to benefit from expanding adoption of information and technologies and access to the Internet in Africa.
“Africa is confronted by problems of Internet penetration,” said the conference paper. “Africa is not only about 16 years behind the rest of the world, but is falling further behind each year. This rising Digital Divide between Africa and industrialized countries means that the potential of African universities to play a key role in national development is largely not being realized.
To address the problems, groups of concerned scientists have come together in a group called eGY-Africa to advocate for better access and equipment for African institutions. Ironically the Internet was first created to link academic institutions yet the science community in Africa feels it is stuck behind a digital firewall - with some using dial-up speeds as slow as 56kbps.
“Any kind of map of Internet performance shows that scientists in Africa, in general, are not able to partner in such virtual teams and activities due to a lack of ICT infrastructure,” the conference paper said. It adds that in many African communities, “cyber cafes have better Internet connectivity than the neighbouring university.”
Experts say that while more fibre is being laid, other developments - such as Low Earth Orbiting Satellites and WIMAX - will help lessen the digital divide on the continent. More African countries are now directly linked to each other rather than through costly and slow intercontinental connections via Europe and North America.
---Reporting by Michael Bociurkiw in Las Vegas