José Maria Figueres Olsen Issue: Africa and the Middle East 2004
Article no.: 1
Topic: Africa’s Wireless Internet Opportunity
Author: José Maria Figueres Olsen
Title: Chairman, United Nations ICT Task Force; Managing Director, World Economic Forum; and Ex-President, Costa Rica
Organisation: United Nations ICT Task Force/World Economic Forum/Costa Rica
PDF size: 724KB

About author

Mr José Maria Figueres Olsen is the Chairman of the United Nations ICT Task Force. He is the Managing Director, World Economic Forum and responsible for the Centre for the Global Agenda. Mr Figueres, President of Costa Rica from 1994 to 1998, began his political career at the request of Costa Rica’s President and Nobel Peace Laureate Oscar Arias, serving as Minister of Foreign Trade and then as Minister of Agriculture. As President, he was noted for his programmes on behalf of sustainable development and economic growth. Mr Figueres is the President of the Board of Leadership and Environment Development (LEAD) and has served on the boards of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), FUNDES Internacional and the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI). He continues to serves on the board of the World Resources Institute and the Costa Rican Foundation for Sustainable Development. José Maria Figueres earned a degree in engineering from the United States Military Academy at West Point and a Masters in Public Administration from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He has lectured extensively on the subjects of Sustainable Development and Technology and is the recipient of many international awards in these fields.


Article abstract

Connectivity – roads, flight connections, or telephone lines – can economically empower people. Information connectivity unleashes human capital and increases productivity and knowledge sharing. In much of the world where, for geographical, technical and economic reasons, there are no wired telephones or Internet connections, wireless fidelity, Wi-Fi, may be the way to provide connectivity. In the developing world, wireless Internet provides an unprecedented opportunity for people who have been, until now, excluded from the global economy to join the information society.


Full Article

The world is experiencing a revolution in which industrial societies are transforming themselves into information-based societies. Unlike the industrial or agricultural revolutions, though, where large amounts of physical and financial capital were necessary to stimulate growth, this information revolution has the prospect of unlocking the potential of human capital everywhere. Still, this promise cannot begin to be realised without first providing the vast numbers of humanity excluded from international networks with access to the Internet and other information and communication technologies (ICTs). Wireless Fidelity, or Wi-Fi, may be the key to unlocking that promise in remote, poor areas. Digital divide The information revolution has been quick to take off in developed countries, but much of the rest of the world lags behind, the most serious case being Africa. The resulting inequalities are referred to collectively as the ‘digital divide.’ The international community is convinced that ICTs can play a vital role in facilitating economic and social development, so the ‘divide’ is cause for great concern. Fortunately, there is the emerging promise of proven and inexpensive technologies to bridge the connectivity gap that is at the root of the divide. Cumulatively, global connectivity has been on the rise. At 2001, 95 per cent of the world’s countries were connected to the Internet. However, in many countries, access remains limited to very few. The ‘information gap’ (measured by the number of Internet hosts per 10,000) between high-income economies and the low, lower-middle and upper-middle economies has widened substantially. In many countries, for varying economic, geographic, social and technical reasons, there are no wired alternatives available by which to surf the web or speak on the telephone. National and international connectivity is in short supply, especially in Africa, where satellite links are limited and expensive, optical fibre is not available and where internal telecommunication infrastructures are concentrated in the few main cities and hardly exist in rural areas. Technical barriers together with weak market economies and limited political support for telecom policies, has deterred investment and supported high prices, thereby hindering the penetration of communication services among the poor. Digital opportunity Through any kind of connectivity – better roads, flight connections or telephone lines – people can be economically empowered. Development is not resource transfer from rich countries to poor ones, but engagement of citizens in economically meaningful ways. Access has become such a hot topic among the international development community because several international organisations argue that it is directly linked to poverty reduction. Connectivity and the information access it brings, unleashes human capital and increases productivity and knowledge sharing in underserved areas where it has been most constrained. In the developing world, then, the promise of wireless Internet technologies presents an unprecedented opportunity for people who have been excluded from the global economy and its communication networks. More than just linking huge numbers of new users to the Internet, Wi-Fi presents attractive opportunities for developing countries to leapfrog several generations of telecommunications infrastructure, including wireline and wireless local loop telephony, to the forefront of broadband communications technology. Wi-Fi can become a critical factor in shrinking the digital divide by providing high-speed Internet access to whole new segments of underserved populations throughout the world at a fraction of the cost of wired technologies. Today’s wireless economics are already compelling: wireless local loops are about one third the cost of copper or fibre land-line service, while packet-based broadband computer networks cost one ninth of land-line service. Ease of set-up, use and maintenance are affordable for both users and providers. Tests in rural settings show that a $30 wireless PC card can provide good connectivity up to a half-kilometre radius with line-of-sight and up to 20 kilometres with antennas and repeaters. Moreover, Wi-Fi access points can be purchased for $80. Wireless systems are easy to deploy and expand and they are more reliable, safer and easier to maintain than landlines. E-mail, voice and video mail are the most popular uses of wireless broadband networks in the developing world. Nevertheless, the more quickly the Internet can be mobilised to provide solutions and products for e-governance, e-health, e-education and e-commerce, the sooner the significant effects of ICTs on development will be felt. Field experiments suggest that wireless Internet can be sustainably – and in some cases profitably – deployed in support of economic and social development objectives. For a continent like Africa, where the poor or absent infrastructure has been an obstacle for traditional Internet connection, the possibility of a low cost connectivity in the form of wireless Internet would have tremendous effects. With these new kinds of solutions the digital divide could more easily be narrowed and African nations could more quickly benefit from e-society. Through better connectivity, brought about by Wi-Fi, e-government, e-education, e-health, e-business and e-agriculture would suddenly be within the reach of even the poorest countries. Leading by example When affordable and relevant, ICTs – including wireless technology – have been adopted at a fast pace within developing countries, leapfrogging traditional infrastructure. There has been considerable evidence of innovation and creativity in the deployment of wireless Internet among early adopters in developing countries. Demonstrating the practicality of the technology for rural connectivity, researchers from the Indian Institute of Technology at Kanpur, working with Media Lab Asia, have ‘unwired’ a 100-sq-km area of the Gangetic Plain in central India. This project provides broadband connectivity to the homes of almost one million people at under $40 per home. Thanks to wireless infrastructure, Africa-Online in Blantyre has managed to provide broadband Internet service in Malawi for more than three years. Internet access has helped rural agricultural clients, for example, get access to commodity pricing to maximise their returns. Because of the poor state of the telephone network, e-mail is now the primary medium for doing business with both national and international clients. Some businesses with websites hosted by Africa-Online have begun to increase their exports because of their ability to take online orders. In Senegal and Kenya the deployment of wireless technology has been critical to provide distance education. Over the past couple of years, the John McCormack Graduate School of Policy Studies at the University of Massachusetts in Boston has partnered with universities to build community resource centres. The universities’ Internet links have enabled the institute to wirelessly connect the centres. Realising the vision The wealth of opportunities presented by wireless internet technologies has been recognized by the United Nations Secretary-General, who expressed a bold vision in this November 5th, 2002 declaration: “We need to think of ways to bring wireless fidelity applications to the developing world, so as to make use of unlicensed radio spectrum to deliver cheap and fast Internet access.” Kofi Annan set up the United Nations ICT Task Force in 2001 as multi-stakeholder group aimed at forging linkages and exploring ways to use information and communication technologies to reach the Millennium Development Goals and bridge the digital divide. The Task Force works to bring the benefits of the digital revolution to the developing world, focusing on vital areas such as poverty reduction, education, health care, the environment and gender equality. It provides a global forum in which to discuss and share best practices on integrating information and communication technologies into development programmes and a platform to promote partnerships between public, private, non-profit, civil society and multilateral stakeholders in order to address the issues of the digital divide and digital opportunity more comprehensively. On June 26, 2003, the UN ICT Task Force held a conference at the UN headquarters in New York, ‘The Wi-Fi Opportunity for Developing Nations.’ The conference brought representatives of developing countries together with leading technology producers, carriers, investors, regulators, entrepreneurs and field practitioners from around the world to examine the development potential created by emerging wireless technologies and discuss recommendations to governments, regulators and Wireless Internet stakeholders to foster rapid market growth and bridge the digital divide. Wireless fidelity was also on the agenda at the first phase of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Geneva on 10-12 December 2003 and will be addressed during the second phase, which will take place in Tunis in November 2005. The objective of the Summit is to develop and foster a clear statement of political will and take concrete steps to establish the foundations for an Information Society for all. An essential foundation for the Information Society is the information and communication infrastructure, which is to enable the universal, sustainable, ubiquitous and affordable access to ICTs even in the remotest and poorest of areas. In order to achieve this goal the Summit encourages the use of unused wireless capacity, including satellite and the further implementation of low-cost connectivity in developing countries. The potential of Wi-Fi to contribute to the infrastructure and access-building was brought up in several WSIS background papers and roundtable discussions. A critical mass of support is building up behind the spread of wireless technologies thanks to these and other fora and the engagement of enthusiastic and influential stakeholders from all sectors of society. Barriers remain Wi-Fi alone is not a panacea for the world’s development problems. To start, it isn’t yet a perfect technology. Compared to wired infrastructure, for instance, wireless provides lower levels of performance. However, technologies are under development to address the known weaknesses of wireless systems and improvements in effectiveness and efficiency can be expected. Wi-Fi is relatively inexpensive to propagate, but necessary interconnection equipment and service to a backbone remain a major expense for countries or private actors. In remote areas, absent or erratic power supply remains a challenge to further implementation. Rigid spectrum policies, protective regulatory environments and lack of sustainable business models remain critical obstacles to faster and broader deployment of wireless Internet technologies, though they will vary with every market. One step of many Wireless Internet may be a very effective and inexpensive connectivity tool, but it does not carry any magic in itself. It can only be successfully deployed for development as demand for connectivity and bandwidth emerges in support of relevant applications for the populations served. These include e-government, e-education, e-health, e-business or e-agriculture applications. These, though, are not easily implemented in the developing world. Consequently, the demand for wireless Internet connectivity, which aggregates according to applications, needs to be explored and documented to support wireless infrastructure investment needs. Even after content that is relevant to users is on place, there will be the need to inform and train users to capitalise on the benefits of ICTs. Wireless broadband technologies offer the potential to shift the goal of the Information Society from the oft-quoted telephone in every village to broadband connectivity everywhere. It is now within reach.