Monday, 12 November 2007

Internet in Africa

From The Economist:

Africa and the internet
The digital gap
Oct 18th 2007
More than a click to put Africa online

WHEN it comes to computing power, the gap between Africa and the broadband world is still a Grand Canyon. Only 4% of Africans have access to the internet. They pay the most in the world, around $250-300 a month, for the slowest connection speeds. E-commerce barely exists. Nigeria's 140m-odd people have but a few hundred decently trafficked websites in their domain. Blogging is a vibrant but peripheral activity.

If sub-Saharan Africa were scaled according to its available internet connectivity, it would be about the size of Ireland. Of its 48 countries, the 28 in central and eastern Africa are connected to the web by only the flimsiest of satellite technology. Apart from the occasional internet hook-up at a diamond mine or UN camp, whole regions of Congo and Sudan, sub-Saharan Africa's two largest countries, have no connection at all. Even countries like Uganda, which are go-ahead about the internet, start from a very low base. Research by Microsoft found only one in 200 Ugandans regularly uses e-mail.

The number is higher in west Africa, where the more robust SAT-3 undersea cable provides for higher speeds and lower costs. The Eastern Africa Submarine Cable System, better known as EASSY, which runs 9,900km (6,152 miles) along the Indian Ocean floor from South Africa to Sudan, is meant to speed up connections in east and central Africa in the next few years but is not yet operating.

African users must also cope with obsolete systems, irregular electricity and a stultifying lack of local content. Interfaces are being written in a number of African languages, but even the clearest instructions in Wolof or Yoruba as to how to use Windows presume a fair degree of literacy. Then there is the high graphical content of the rich world's web: videos and social networking are unworkable in the snail-slow dial-up offered in most African internet caf├ęs.

All of this would be worse for Africans if state telecom monopolies had kept their grip. But fortunately they have been cast aside by leaner and more transparent mobile-phone companies, which the World Bank says may have poured $25 billion into Africa in the past ten years. The continent remains an enormous investment prospect, not least in internet offerings.

A UN call in 2005 for “digital solidarity” has so far amounted to little. A big conference called Africa Connect, to be held in Rwanda later this month, is meant to give a boost. It says it will be “pure business”, not charity. African governments will face pressure, from the World Bank and the African Development Bank among others, to slash red tape and encourage technology firms in the hope of cutting the cost of going online by two-thirds and getting ministries, hospitals and schools onto the internet by 2012.

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