Follow the spread of internet in Africa: oAfrica.com

Background

The internet has changed nearly every part of our lives. We save money through online shopping, we learn about our political processes from news coverage of congress, and we educate ourselves with online classes and enlightening articles. We oftentimes forget how a seamlessly integrated world wide web affects our lives, and even more often we forget that the world wide web is not worldwide. In fact, "we" really means the developed world - the West. Much of the developing world has poor access to the internet, and most of those living in the Least Developed Countries - 69% of which are found in Africa - cannot afford to access the internet. Nevertheless, the long process of laying the groundwork for information technology in Africa is culminating in real improvements in bandwidth speed and costs, and by the end of the decade, fast and affordable bandwidth will be available throughout Africa. Still, low-incomes in Sub-Saharan Africa pose a serious threat to any true improvement in access to the internet. The inability to purchase personal computers and smart phones coupled with weak demand for computing and internet services creates an impasse to web adoption. Incorporating a community approach to internet use and proposing a testing model for deployment in Chad, this project aims to develop a framework for the construction of affordable, self-sustaining internet cafes for rapid replication in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The State of Internet Use in Africa

While Europe and North America charge forward with a highly productive online world, much of Sub-Saharan Africa still lacks real internet access. Africa has 15% of the world population but only 5% of the world's internet users, and most of that 5% is clustered in the more prosperous North African countries, and, to a smaller degree, the nations of South Africa and Nigeria. While the more developed North African state of Tunisia has 33% of their population online, both Benin and Tanzania can claim only 2% of their population as internet users, and not even 1% of those in the Democratic Republic of Congo or Guinea use the internet. Even more disconcerting is that the disparity in the adoption of the internet between countries is larger than the disparity in GDP per capita, meaning there is more worldwide inequality in internet access than income.

Access to internet in Africa is still extremely restricted

More widespread access to computers and the internet would have a considerable impact on development, education, and everyday life in Sub-Saharan Africa. The UN combines measures of life expectancy, literacy, education, and standards of living into a single measure called the Human Development Index. Comparing the Human Development Index of 172 countries to internet use and population figures reveals an astonishing correlation between internet use and human development. Excluding countries like America and Portugal that have very high human development (developed countries), nations are broken down into three categories: high human development, medium human development, and low human development. In these three categories of developing countries, high human development nations have impressive internet usership, with Chile and Malaysia both exhibiting a greater than 40% internet user rate against total population. The medium human development countries of Egypt and the Dominican Republic have about 25% of their total populations as internet users, but other medium human development countries with lower HDI, like Indonesia and Congo, have less than 10% of their total population online. Among low human development countries, rates often dip below 2% of total population. Tanzania and Chad - two of the lowest human development countries in the world - both have only 1.5% of their population using the web.

Higher internet usership would allow Sub-Saharan Africa to enjoy the same benefits that other developing countries with higher internet use have in addition to some critical advances specific to the needs of severely underdeveloped nations. One study noted the reasons for spread of the internet as "information for personal development, business start-up and growth, [and] political participation and the progress of civil society," also citing "increased transparency...and fighting corruption...in poor countries." In addition to the benefits that internet-affluent Westerners are well aware of, better web access will yield some special benefits for Africa. Political participation in Africa falls far below Western figures, and access to information and collaboration resources is vital to political participation. The dramatic political change in the North African nations of Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya started on social networking sites like Facebook. Besides profiting the political landscape, better internet access will also impact Sub-Saharan Africa in the realms of economic development and health. Economists cite availability of information as one of the building blocks of economic decision making. A stronger foundation of information technology would go beyond providing the essentials of an economy and yield myriad opportunities for national and regional development of commerce. Lastly, Sub-Saharan Africans would benefit from health information available online, such as locations for HIV testing centers or symptoms of and recommended treatment for malaria.

Indeed, the internet already does exist in Sub-Saharan Africa, although current internet services are too expensive and too slow. A recent survey of medical schools in Africa revealed that, while all medical schools reported having computing facilities, only 73% had internet access, and almost half of those surveyed reported speeds as "slow" or "very slow." David DeArmey, International Director for the Chad-based organization ENVODEV, summarized the situation well: "Currently, we pay 85,000 CFA [(or, $190)] per month for a USB modem connection (128 kbps). The connection fluctuates in availability. Petrol shortage leaving relay towers without power is very common, disabling connections for up to one week. Most internet cafes in southern Chad are useless during the rainy season, because they function through VSAT [satellite] systems."


On Internet Access in Africa

"The inability to purchase personal computers and smart phones coupled with weak demand for computing and internet services creates an impasse to web adoption."

Satellite internet has dominated and continues to dominate the internet market in Sub-Saharan Africa despite its technical limitations and steep cost. Because your click on a link must travel twenty thousand miles up to a satellite in geostationary orbit and back down to the ground, satellite internet is inherently slower than wired connections. Even having a connection is not guaranteed; satellite dishes rely on a clear line of sight, and foliage, cloud cover, or rain can leave users without internet. These factors and other limitations prompted a recent analysis of satellite internet by the Rural Mobile and Broadband Alliance to conclude that satellite internet is not truly broadband. More prohibitive than the slow speeds and spotty availability of satellite internet is the steep pricing. Individuals or small organizations that wish to secure their own satellite connection in Sub-Saharan Africa must pay thousands of dollars for necessary equipment and anywhere from a few hundred to over a thousand dollars per month for between 64kbps (very slow) and 1mbps (average speed) of bandwidth.

Only in the last few years has the bandwidth problem dissolved away as Sub-Saharan Africa welcomed the arrival of fast internet via fibre-optic undersea cable. The first underwater cables became operational in 2001 and 2002. Although the cables, named SAT-3 and SAFE, had landing points in Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, and other coastal African nations, the cost of service exceeded that of satellite options. In 2004, one report concluded, "SAT-3 has had a negligible impact on improving broadband access or lowering prices." The same report went on to say that "bandwidth remains 100 to 400 times more expensive in rural and semi-urban Sub-Saharan Africa than in Europe." SAT-3 and SAFE's relative monopoly allowed subjective and possibly advantageous price setting. Nevertheless, five years later a new submarine African cable system, coined SEACOM, became operational. In anticipation of SEACOM's arrival, the operators of SAT-3 dropped prices by 50%. For South Africa alone, SEACOM's president Brian Herlihy predicted that prices would drop 90% after its launch.

Despite setbacks, ICT is spreading across Sub-Saharan Africa

Fibre-optic cable is now leaving the coastal realm and extending inwards to provide internet to landlocked African countries. The ACE cable, which runs from France to Africa and is slated to power up in 2012, will bring internet not only to lesser-served coastal communities like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Namibia, but also to the landlocked countries of Mali and Niger. The head of an Africa fibre-optic cable mapping project supported by Google wrote earlier this year, "To my knowledge, every country on the continent has some sort of terrestrial [land-based] fibre infrastructure project either completed or underway to connect to an undersea cable or to a country with an undersea cable." Although the nonprofit Chad Now predicted earlier this year that fibre-optic cable would soon be extended to northeastern Nigeria and then make the 200km jump from Maiduguri to Chad's capitol N'Djamena, recent maps indicate that this extension is already taking place. In fact, a 2010 article labeled Nigeria, Chad’s neighbor to the west, Africa’s largest online market with 24 million users. Surrounded by nations that have or are soon to have broadband, the arrival of more affordable broadband internet to Chad is imminent.

When more affordable broadband reaches Chad, it may not have any impact on the ability of the populace to access the internet. Some have suggested that Sub-Saharan Africa is in a vicious cycle that disallows the progression of internet access. Because pricing has never before allowed open exploration of computer and internet technology to Sub-Saharan Africans making an average income, demand is extremely low. Low demand perpetuates both the scarce supply of computing technologies and their high price. In addition to a lack of awareness, a poor power grid and under-equipped computers challenge the exploitation of internet services.


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