|Africa and the Middle East II 2003
|Accounting for Africa’s Digital Schism
|3D Global Communications
ICT availability and Internet access are very limited in Africa. Cables provide Internet access in coastal areas and VSAT and WiFi could help bring service to Africa’s interior, but infrastructure is lacking and regulatory restrictions often impede their availability. The population has limited access to computers, due to the cost or, at times, electricity to run them. Cellular phones, with their quick rollout and widespread availability, can provide Internet access, but they are costly and quite limited compared to computers. “A digital divide threatens to exacerbate already-wide gaps between rich and poor, within countries,” said United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan when he addressed world business leaders at The Net World Order conference on 18 July this year. “The stakes are high indeed. Timely access to news and information can promote trade, education, employment, health and wealth,” he said.
“A digital divide threatens to exacerbate already-wide gaps between rich and poor, within countries,” said United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan when he addressed world business leaders at The Net World Order conference on 18 July this year. “The stakes are high indeed. Timely access to news and information can promote trade, education, employment, health and wealth,” he said. There has been, and more than likely will continue to be, a gap between those people, communities, countries and even continents that make better use of information technology than others. A digital divide has existed since the advent of binary code. This divide is starting to look more like a cataclysmic schism, rather than a simple imbalance of skills and resources, especially when comparing Africa to the rest of the world. Although basic indicators such as Internet and cellular telephone usage are improving, Africa as a whole continues to lag miserably behind the rest of the world. New technologies are hitting the African shores at breakneck speed as organisations of every size begin to comprehend the richness of this untapped market and attempt to balance the scales. Innovative solutions are being proposed at an international level to address the problem, but numerous stumbling blocks need to be overcome before these solutions can be successfully implemented. A closer look at the current IT landscape is needed to better understand these solutions. Africa’s Arid Digital Landscape With an increase of 20 percent in the number of dial-up Internet subscribers in 2002, Africa is becoming increasingly ‘wired’. However, mass adoption of sophisticated technology and Internet access remains limited. According to various reports, Africa has roughly one Internet user for every 200 people. A pitiful figure when looking at the world average of one user for every 15 people and astounding when comparing it to North America and Europe who average one in every two people. According to a report compiled by independent Internet and telecoms consultant, Mike Jensen, the Internet is available in all of Africa’s 54 countries and territories. This is encouraging especially since the continent is better known for its uphill struggles against the likes of HIV/AIDS, famine, drought and civil strife. However, a number of obstacles still prevent Africa from narrowing the divide. With three computers for every 1000 people (Computers4Africa) access to hardware is restricted. Irregular, or non-existent, electricity supply is another major barrier to the use of technology, especially outside the major towns and cities. Jensen’s report (updated in September 2002) also indicates that the widespread penetration of the Internet in Africa is largely confined to these major cities, where only a minority of the total population lives. The absence of fixed telephone lines will, it seems, become less of a problem as the new generation of wireless technology comes of age. Wireless UMTS devices that transmit both voice and data are already beginning to make an appearance in the African marketplace. However, these have their own barriers to market entry, but by no means are commonplace and will have to compete with the likes of Wi-Fi, which is currently taking both the developed and developing markets by storm. Then, there is international bandwidth capacity to contend with. Put bluntly, Africa simply does not have the bandwidth capacity to take advantage of the new digital services. Outside South Africa, the total international outgoing bandwidth installed on the continent is only 60 Mb/s. On average, six dialup users share 1 Kb/s of international bandwidth (Africa ONE). Obtaining sufficient international bandwidth to deliver web pages over the Internet is still a major problem in most countries. The suggested solutions currently being tested and implemented address the above-mentioned issues specifically. Restrictive government regulations combined with state monopolies and high costs in the telecommunications sector are other factors contributing to the digital divide’s proliferation in Africa. This is a problem that must be rectified from within Africa. External intervention and technology can do very little to address this issue specifically, except that is, to increase pressure. A bit of the hair from the dog that bit you It was South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki, who first drew Africa’s political attention to the issue by stating as long ago as 1999, “We have to address the challenge of bringing the developing world on the information super highway if we are to promote economic growth and development world-wide. If we are to consolidate democracy and human rights, increase the capacity of ordinary people to participate in governance, encourage resolution of conflicts by negotiation rather than war. And do what has to be done to enable all to gain access to the best in human civilisation, with the common neighbourhood in which we all live.” Although it seems clear that the digital divide is a symptom of a much bigger underlying problem, we see technologists, organisations and governments apparently tackling symptomatic imbalances as a means to rectifying the problem. A digital divide would not exist without technology, but this is exactly what is being used to bridge the gap: technology. Rather than addressing the underlying causes for this technological schism, fire is being fought with fire to leapfrog preceding technologies and catapult Africa into the digital limelight. Essentially, Africa is experimenting with four different cutting-edge technologies to close the fissure: namely, fibre-optic cable, mobile Internet, WiFi and VSAT. Each of these technologies has its pros and cons and, although they might differ radically from one another, they are irrefutably contributing to the resolution of a shared goal: to provide Africa with a stepping stone, aptly described by President Mbeki, to the world. Fibre-optic cable One of the ways the world’s inhabited continents are linked together is via submarine fibre-optic cable systems. These systems are capable of transporting vast amounts of both voice and data traffic across the globe at lightening speed and have been referred to as the “backbone of the world economy”. In a project of unprecedented scale, a US-based company has undertaken to lay 32,000 kilometres worth of fibre-optic cable around Africa. Parts of the system, implemented on Africa’s west coast for improved communication with US and Europe, were ready for service in 2002. When completed, the system will have approximately 20 or more landing points at strategic African coastal cities and will form a self-healing ring around the continent. The inter-linking of African countries to one another and to the global telecommunications network will be vastly improved. Internet growth in Africa, as a result, is expected to more than double in 2004 and 2005. The implementation of fibre-optic cable systems will transform the continent’s telecommunications networks and secure its place in the global information superhighway. Sadly however, while the systems may now serve some major coastal areas, a cost-effective alternative communications solution throughout the continent itself is also needed if the digital divide is to be vanquished. Mobile Internet Connectivity is almost useless without an end-user device to gain access to the information super highway and visa-versa. In other words, Africa needs to increase the penetration of connected computers within the continent. In a country riddled with poverty, a computer is hardly a ‘must have’ when looking at the conundrum from a consumer level. At a business level, Jensen reports that a typical African company may have many PC’s, but often only one of these has a modem connecting to the Internet – a situation not conducive to effective Internet usage. As we know, most of Africa’s fibre-optic cable systems are still located in coastal areas leaving the vast majority of rural Africa unconnected. Twenty million PCs become obsolete in the US alone each year. Many of these could be put to work in Africa by non-profit organisations that work to maximise the life of these computers and distribute them in and around Africa. This, though, begs the question – how useful are these machines without connectivity? Organisations are now looking towards the remarkable growth of cellular telephone usage in Africa for a few tips and hints. Most experts agree that cellular telephony offers a possible path towards a radical increase in Internet access and usage in Africa. The explosive growth in the use of cellular phones can be seen throughout the continent. The International Telecommunications Union predicts that 40 million Africans will have cellular telephones by the end of 2003. The success of these cellular operations lies in overcoming the barriers to market-entry. Many companies have increased their user base by selling pre-paid telephone vouchers or cards and have thereby eliminated the problems associated with monthly billing. Other entrepreneurs have launched cellular telephone shops in rural areas. At these shops, customers pay per call. This, effectively, provides connectivity to remote areas where landlines will probably not be installed for another 10 years. Much of the success of cellular is due to the advance developments made that increases the range of cellular base stations. Although the vast majority of Africa might not be able to afford a contract, this clearly demonstrates that they do want and will use modern communication methods when available. The arrival of affordable hand-held Internet devices could therefore, facilitate access to the Web in areas where no fixed-line telephony is available. However, it is important to note that cellular telephony is primarily a basic voice service and it is unclear whether the current formula will work well as a data-centric service. Moreover, the cost of airtime remains relatively expensive making the use of cellular networks for Internet access impractical for most users. This is where Wi-Fi comes to the fore. Wireless Fidelity (Wi-Fi) Although some inroads have been made into the wireless Internet access domain, it is still in its infancy, especially in Africa. Wi-Fi refers to the 802.11b wireless standard that allows users with enabled devices to access the Internet, anywhere and anytime, without a physical connection to the network. It provides cheap and fast Internet access by making use of unlicensed radio spectrum. Providers in the field are looking to link a fibre-optic cable backbone to a transmitting device or base station, which essentially operates in a way similar to cellular telephony systems. Access to information suddenly became far more affordable; even so Wi-Fi is not barrier-free. There are initial set-up costs involved. Then, of course the spectrum needs to be managed and maintained – a difficult task in a continent with a shortage of ICT skills. The time factor also needs to be mentioned, as does the cost of the actual end-user devices. The biggest hurdle is, perhaps, the regulation issue. Many African countries are heavily regulated by state-owned telecom monopolies. These are rather cautious and slow when it comes to handing over control of the unregulated spectrum. Unlicensed spectrum was suddenly licensed and regulated because there was fear that the technology would make possible a highly discounted substitute for cellular voice telephony. Most African countries are treating this technology as another telecommunication service when it clearly isn’t. Grey area regulation has also hindered the widespread adoption of VSAT, another cutting-edge technology and a potential bridge of the digital divides. VSAT Africa’s need for connectivity and bandwidth has forced VSAT technology to move from being a niche technology to a mainstream telecommunications service platform. A popular technology, VSAT is being used by several African companies and government organisations wherever regulation allows. But what is it? VSAT provides low-cost, two-way C-Band satellite-based data services, including Internet access that uses very small aperture radio terminal ground stations to connect via satellite to the US and Europe. Popular web data is often cached at local servers using a basic satellite dish and updated periodically. The two-way satellite technology has been very quickly adopted in countries such as DRC, Mozambique, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Zambia, all of who have ISPs that do not depend upon the local telecom operator for international bandwidth. Uganda, at one stage, also allowed public VSAT Internet services, but suspended the licenses after the sale of the second competitive, operator license. A number of other low-cost consumer oriented two-way VSAT services have been launched by companies such as Afsat Kenya, Web-Sat and IVS Africa, these are expected to be rapidly adopted wherever regulations allow. These services make use of the powerful Ku-Band signals that now cover Africa, and make possible services similar to those currently available in the US and Europe. Conclusion Bridging the digital schism is going to take time, money and sustained innovation. The solutions need to address the whole of Africa, from its coastal areas to its rural digital wastelands. Technologies need to be brought together, converge in some form so the strengths of one offsets the weaknesses of another, and provide a comprehensive solution to the problem of digital exclusion. It is encouraging to see that Africa’s leaders have acknowledged the problem of digital exclusion and recognized the role that information and communication technology will play in overcoming it. ICT is undeniably the cornerstone on which a platform will be built to “promote trade, education, employment, health and wealth” in Africa. However, ICTs first have to be available, accessible, affordable and relevant to the people of the region. Legal and regulatory frameworks need to be overhauled and deregulation needs to run its course. These changes need to come from within the continent for a more liberalized undivided and balanced Africa.