Development, Interrupted or: At Least Africa Won’t Have An Internet Porn Problem

Via NEWSgrist and the Robert Goldwater Library, from the New York Times.

Attempts to bring affordable high-speed Internet service to the masses have made little headway on the continent. Less than 4 percent of Africa’s population is connected to the Web; most subscribers are in North African countries and the republic of South Africa.

A lack of infrastructure is the biggest problem. In many countries, communications networks were destroyed during years of civil conflict, and continuing political instability deters governments or companies from investing in new systems. E-mail messages and phone calls sent from some African countries have to be routed through Britain, or even the United States, increasing expenses and delivery times. About 75 percent of African Internet traffic is routed this way and costs African countries billions of extra dollars each year that they would not incur if their infrastructure was up to speed.

Africa’s only connection to the network of computers and fiber optic cables that are the Internet’s backbone is a $600 million undersea cable running from Portugal down the west coast of Africa. Built in 2002, the cable was supposed to provide cheaper and faster Web access, but so far that has not happened.

Rwandan officials were especially interested in wiring primary and secondary schools, seeing information technology as crucial to modernizing the country’s rural economy. Some 90 percent of the country’s eight million people work in agriculture.

But as of mid-July, only one-third of the 300 schools covered in Terracom’s contract had high-speed Internet service. All 300 were supposed to have been connected by 2006.

Over all, less than 1 percent of the population is connected to the Internet.

It is hard, from the story (and from, I imagine, the actual circumstances) to figure out exactly the problem. The company, Terracom, is based in Boston and, after its original sales pitch and monopoly-win, bought out the national Telco, Rwandanet. Meaning Rwand’s monopoly telecommunications provider is in Boston, in the hands of a guy who’d never set foot in Rwanda before, and has only been there a few times a year since.

The owner Greg Wyler is criticised for delivering very little of his internet promises, while signing up as many people to mobile telephony as he can, and while complaining that the bandwidth problem is the bandwith problem – there are only so many satellites to go around, satellites offer much less bandwidth and one company cannot hook Africa up to FTTN networks on its own.

To some extent that’s fair, however he’d have generated a lot more interest by governments if his operation were more serious. After being busted a while ago, trying to offload Terracom shares to a regional provider, in contravention of the contract he’d signed with the Rwandan government, Terracom has a new Chief Executive, who’s worked in Africa a lot and is in Rwanda full-time (apparently, service has improved).

The New York Times manages to stitch together the solution:

Prices remain high because the national telecommunications linked to the cable maintain a monopoly over access, squeezing out potential competitors. And plans for a fiber optic cable along the East African coast have stalled over similar access issues. Most countries in Eastern Africa, like Rwanda, depend on slower satellite technology for Internet service.

Internet rates have been lowered, from about $1,000 a month when Terracom arrived in 2003, but most people still can’t afford it. The average Rwandan makes about $220 a year, and a fixed-line Internet hookup costs about $90 a month. Basic wireless Internet is about $63 a month. Those rich enough to pay the fees complain about poor service.

Terracom is moving ahead with plans to give Rwanda the most advanced Internet infrastructure in Africa. A nationwide wireless connection should begin operating near year-end, he said, about the time a nonprofit group, One Laptop Per Child, based in Boston, is to introduce a $100 laptop in the country.

And Terracom is continuing to lay fiber optic cables to connect Rwanda to several other African countries, eliminating a need for phone calls and Internet traffic to be routed via European or American networks.

The government, meanwhile, is moving forward with its own plans to build a fiber optic network. It also has granted Internet service licenses to South African companies and plans to issue several more. “We think we are going to have a healthier market pretty soon,” said Nkubito Bakuramutsa, director general of the Rwanda Information Technology Authority. “We have learned from past experience.”

Mr. Bakuramutsa said he hopes to bring the price of Internet service down to about $10 a month.

I realise I wrote only on Friday about natural monopolies, but in this instance it won’t operate quite the same – or it will, but the monopoly will be state-owned. In order to generate the seriousness of the priority, several competitors will need to be in place. Mostly, I would say, that is because, at the moment, it is people complaining about not having internet access (or electricity), but not all that many, and not commercial enterprises. Once more companies are competing, driving prices down and generating critical mass for the demand, the Rwandan government will become very serious about those plans for the fibre-optic network, and should ultimately follow the path of, say, Botswana, famous for establishing security and attracting foreign investment, and generally doing well (all things being relative).

At the same time, and leaving the grounded-economics, the effects on information, media, evidence-based medicine and, ultimately, the rights of women and children, land and resources conservation and democracy itself would easily surpass anything we’ll ever achieve smashing the birthplace of civilisation to blood pieces.

Then, who knows. Some stable public ownership or corrupt fire-sale privatisation to cronies. It would probably depend upon the state of the continent, as a whole (who figured on Zimbabwe going to shit so quickly?). Given how far behind they are, though, it is worth the effort of African countries to lay their networks now, before they become another generation of technology behind.

Africa remains the least connected region in the world, and the digital gap between it and the developed world is widening rapidly. “Unless you can offer Internet access that is the same as the rest of the world, Africa can’t be part of the global economy or academic environment,” said Lawrence H. Landweber, professor emeritus of computer science at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, who was also part of an early effort to bring the Web to Africa in the mid-1990s. “The benefits of the Internet age will bypass the continent.”

Here’s the New York Times graphic on internet usage:

NY Times graphic

And another on world internet traffic using the top 5 protocols, by McAffee’s HackerWatch:

internet usage

There’s also a great interactive map here. Internet penetration in Niger is apparely 0.2% of the population (it’s 68% in the US, Canada, Australia).

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