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Wiring up the continent

Special Mail &Guardian supplement on Internet connectivity in Africa

Developing Africa’s information economy is of paramount importance, writes David Shapshak

The Internet will finally take off in Africa in 1998. But taking the information age into the continent, which dramatically lacks the infrastructure needed for conveying the Internet and normal telecommunications, may prove to be the information revolution’s nemesis.

So how does one “wire up” the continent and bring First World information technology to the techno-backwater of the planet?

Africa’s telecommunications industry is meeting this week at Africa Telecom 98, the continent’s largest telecommunications conference. Organised by the United Nations’s telecom agency, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the week-long event will look at how telecommunications can have an impact on Africa’s economic and democratic growth.

South Africa’s solution has been to build its own digital empire on the back of a fibre optic infrastructure. “The government has made a strategic decision to make Internet access a major policy goal for the next 10 to 15 years and we’ve agreed on how to lay the architecture,” says Minister of Post, Telecommunications and Broadcasting Jay Naidoo.

He says the communications ministry, the national telephone utility Telkom and the government’s delivery arm to previously disadvantaged areas, the Universal Service Agency, are laying a platform for an information economy.

Naidoo’s plan to make the government more digitally interactive involves 24-hour access to its departments via the Internet for all bureaucratic banking, passport renewals and viewing of government tenders. This will be achieved through public access terminals, or telecentres, in rural areas and smart card technology – producing a “one-stop shop” for citizens.

“We’re constructing a digital nervous system,” he says. It can ease backlogs in medical care, by remotely providing medicine or primary health care, known as tele-medicine, assist in distance education and deliver other government services.

The Internet, Naidoo says, will be one of the government’s most powerful means to deliver democracy within market conditions. “We’re going to create a network society that will smart- catapult us into the 21st century.”

The information economy, which may ultimately replace the industrial complex as the world’s primary form of economic activity, has yet to find its place in Africa. “The Internet will allow for the empowerment of the most disempowered people,” says Naidoo. About 700 000 of the estimated one million Internet users in Africa live in South Africa.

Says ITU secretary general Dr Pekka Tarjanne: “The Internet has a great deal to offer the people of the African continent, with its ability to break the bounds of isolation and bring remote communities in touch with the rest of the world. Its vast store of information, along with distance leaning and telemedicine systems now being developed, has real potential to transform the lives of many of Africa’s inhabitants.”

But the concept of an information economy and its payoffs are distinctly First World ideas, unlikely to find a foothold in developing African countries, unless their politicians can be convinced – as Naidoo has convinced South Africa’s Cabinet – that moves towards an information society are crucial.

Nonetheless, multinational computer hardware, software and e- commerce (electronic commerce) companies are spreading the message.

“Africa is one of the new big markets,” says Gregor Noriskin, a Microsoft South Africa consultant. “In order to get into the market you need to think up new technologies. You’ve got large distances with low bandwidth requirements, and not a huge number of people using the Internet. You need to find alternative ways of delivering this at low cost.”

One of the ways to do this is by satellite, which overcomes the problems of laying cabling, building a digital backbone or dealing with the poor African telecom infrastructure. But while major corporations with African business interests – usually mining – have been using satellites for years, frequently illegally, satellite up-links and down-links for Internet access are prohibitively expensive.

Several companies are vying to make their mark in the next generation in communications by launching satellite networks, or “constellations”, which will offer global access to telephones and the Internet. The most ambitious of these is Teledesic, backed by Microsoft’s Bill Gates, who is planning an “Internet in the sky”, offering 64 megabyte-per-second downloads (2 000 times faster than standard modems) to anyone with a 50cm satellite dish.

Independent Internet consultant Vusi Khumalo says satellites could find their purchase by drawing businesses into using the service first, then attracting dial-up consumers and the rest of the market. The largest hook for the Internet to gain a significant foothold is e-mail.

Mike Wright, MD of VWV Interactive, an Internet and multimedia publishing company, agrees: “E-mail is the killer application on the Web. With it you can push the Internet as far into Africa as it can go.” Once the benefits of e-mail become apparent, the rest of the advantages of being wired will become obvious.

Wright says the growth of the Internet in Africa will follow an exponential curve, driven by businesses as they discover they can open up national and international markets for their goods or services.

The Internet’s infrastructure of multiple server computers is also “more bulletproof” than the fragile, faulty telephone networks that characterise African communications, he says.

One advantage of Africa’s late start into the Internet infrastructure is that fibre optic cables have become the norm. Connectivity, the phrase used to describe how Internet-connected a country is, has reached high proportions and 44 of the 56 capital cities on the continent offer their citizens Internet access.

Bruce Cohen, general manger of MWeb Interactive – the online publishing arm of one of the country’s largest service providers, MWeb – predicts a leapfrog in technology. “Just as we’re seeing informal settlements moving from no telephones to cellphones, so we’ll see a leapfrog in Internet and telecom technologies.

“Though connectivity is poor, new technologies are emerging and they’ll give many places in Africa – where there’s commitment, of course – the opportunity to close the communications gap, at much lower costs.”

Tarjanne concurs: “Wireless local loop, high-frequency radio, undersea fibre optic and VSats [very small aperture terminals] can, and I believe will, transform telecommunications infrastructure across Africa. Global Mobile Personal Communication by Satellite [GMPCS] also has the potential to bring greatly improved access.”

Countries which have liberalised their society tend to be more receptive to the Internet and its technology, says Khumalo. “Dictators, on the other hand, are paranoid that their citizens will be trying to undermine them and therefore don’t allow an information economy to develop in their countries.”

The rest of the continent is light years behind South Africa, which ranks 16th in the world connectivity scales, with its competitive, lively Internet industry, says David Frankel, MD of the Internet Solution, one of South Africa’s largest Internet service providers.

“There’s a massive chasm between the have and have-nots. Much of Africa has been thrust into the have-nots category because of the artificial cost of getting a line [from South Africa to other African countries. This] is because of Telkom and the countries’ own [telecommunications networks]. Having said that, the Internet has taken a foothold,” says Frankel.

The price of a digital link from an African country to South Africa’s established infrastructure makes it more cost-effective to have a link directly to the United States, he says. Wiring up Africa is the technological challenge facing the continent if it wants to become a major player in the world’s global information economy.

To do this, Naidoo says African governments need to lay the policy framework for the Internet to develop, with clear separations between state functions, industry regulators and Internet service providers and clear licensing procedure.

Says Naidoo: “African leadership must confront a major indictment against us. Two years from the next millennium there are 700-million people on the continent and only 12-million have access to telephones.”

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