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« on: October 10 2011 »

By Adrian Craddock
IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis*

LONDON (IDN) - Prior to the 2010 South Africa World Cup, submarine fibre optic cabling was laid to improve the speed and reliability of broadband. Despite this, Internet World Statistics reports that only 11.4 percent of Africans have internet access, far below the global average of 30.2 percent.

Considering that a World Bank study suggests every 10 percent of broadband penetration increases developing countries' per capita GDP growth by 1.38 percent, the scarcity of Africa's online network has significant economic repercussions.

According to Telecoms analyst Ovum, it is high prices that are standing in the way of bridging the digital divide. Senior Analyst Richard Hurst said: "Some countries have broadband pricing double or triple the price of an equivalent service in a more developed market." Nigeria exemplifies this with broadband starting at $1,211 per year. Considering that the country's gross national income per capita is $1,180, only the highest socio-economic groups can afford broadband internet access.

Peering and Interconnection Forum

Speaking at last month's Africa Peering and Interconnection Forum (AfPIF) in Ghana, independent IT consultant Mike Jensen blamed prices on a lack of competition. "There are few wholesale/carrier licenses issued and in some cases [there is] discrimination against new entrants," he said. A report published by African IT expert Olof Hesselmark supports Jensen's view.

Hesselmark writes that many countries have state-run telecom monopolies that insist on remaining the sole suppliers of international gateways and bandwidth. Nowhere is this more obvious than Ethiopia, where the government-run ETC holds a monopoly in all fixed, mobile, internet and data communications. The result is a rate of 300 Birr ($17.50) per gigabyte of downloads and a penetration rate of 0.5 percent.

Research company CEO Muriuki Mureithi also used the AfPIF conference to highlight the effect border taxes have on driving up prices. "It may be because of lack of understanding of internet business, but some African countries insist fibre operators crossing the border must pay license fees, which in some cases is prohibitive," she said. Landlocked countries that do not have direct access to submarine fibre optics are especially affected. For Mureithi the remedy lies in adopting the European Union's model, wherein telecommunications are exempt from cross-border taxation.

The high fees associated with ADSL line rental also stand in the way of internet uptake. In South Africa, Internet Service Providers are lobbying for a relaxation of access charges. "Line rental and ADSL access are among the few elements of total ADSL costs that have not come down over the past few years," the Internet Service Providers' Association of South Africa's general manager, Ant Brooks, told IT News Africa. "South Africa's high line rental costs remain a major barrier to wider adoption of broadband in the country ... we believe that fees for analogue line rental and ADSL access should be lower."

Local content

But for all the discussion of levies and competition, comments from Ghanaian Communications Minister Haruna Iddrisu at AfPIF raised concerns over what most distinguishes Africa from the Western networking model: a lack of local hosting. The vast majority of Africa's online traffic, even over short geographical distances, is routed through Europe and the US. Without more servers hosting content closer to users, Africa remains dependent on the costly process of connecting with international backhaul.

Thankfully, change may be on the horizon. Google has shown an interest in localising African hosting by trialling a prototype IT incubator, called Umbono, in Cape Town. The project "brings together the elements necessary for tech start-ups to trial ideas and attract outside investment to grow their businesses". Head of Mobile South Africa at Google, Brett St Clair, told Change Waves that the project aims "to bring together the elements necessary for tech start-ups to trial their ideas and ultimately attract additional rounds of outside investment to grow their businesses." In short, it is an effort by Google to "get more users in Africa online by developing an accessible, relevant, and sustainable Internet ecosystem". Growing locally hosted content forms a cornerstone of that goal.

That said, building up local hosting will only increase speed and affordability if tangible infrastructure can actually connect remote communities. There are still considerable gaps in bridging Africa's "last mile", the final leg of delivering connectivity from communications providers to customers. Aside from geographical and political barriers hindering the rollout of wired broadband, copper theft has exacerbated the problem. Because of this, wireless delivery is growing in profile as the solution to Africa's digital divide.

Wireless delivery

UK charity Computer Aid International has shown the potential of wireless internet by sending three solar-powered internet cafés, housed in shipping containers, to Kenya and Zambia. These "Zuba-boxes" house 11 monitors and have Wimax Wifi capability. Where wireless Internet is unavailable, the cafés use expensive satellite technology.

Wider distribution of wireless transmitters is key to unlocking the potential of the Zuba Box model. Many African governments have already begun licensing wireless providers, including Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda and Algeria. But for other countries the internet is as inaccessible as ever.

According to the International Telecommunication Union, Sierra Leone, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Guinea, Liberia, and the Seychelles are still without a fibre optic connection. Instead, internet users are forced to rely on highly expensive satellite links. The World Bank reported that broadband costs in Sierra Leone are 25 times higher than average American prices.

While the AfPIF is a local step towards overcoming the continent's connectivity problems, there are signs that established international corporations will hold sway. Paul English, co-founder of the travel search engine kayak.com, has outlined a plan to blanket Africa with free Wifi using WiMac hubs.

"I want it to be completely self-sustaining," English told fastcompany.com in 2010. His proposal involves two tiers: search engines, news and educational websites would be offered free of charge, while local companies would charge for upgraded access and faster connections. Despite its potential, however, the plan has had little publicity since initial testing last year.

In the meantime, information flow in Africa is being powered by a surge of increasingly affordable smartphones. Kenya has emerged as a successful case study for phone-delivered internet. Over half the population are mobile subscribers, despite having an average annual income of $730. This level of uptake is largely thanks to strong competition, cheap hardware and low telecommunications tariffs. Unreliability, slow speeds and a lack of content, however, mean that mobile internet can only be part of the solution to Africa's networking woes.

It would thus seem that until the price and coverage of wireless and fibre optic broadband is improved, Africa's digital divide will continue to gape.

*This article was first published by Think Africa Press and is being reproduced by arrangement with them. The writer, Adrian Craddock, is a freelance journalist based in London. He has produced work for the BBC World Service, The Weekend West Australian, and Crikey.com.au. [IDN-InDepthNews - October 02, 2011]

source: http://www.indepthnews.info/index.php/global-issues/446-no-quick-remedy-for-africas-internet-gap
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