/ 20 September 2007

Africa telecoms summit to promote internet access

A United Nations-backed Africa communications summit in Rwanda next month will seek to boost high-speed internet access to match the continent’s explosive growth in cellphones, officials said on Wednesday.

The October 29 and 30 ”Connect Africa” gathering of African political leaders and international investors in the Rwandan capital Kigali will be a networking opportunity, not a forum for negotiating new regulations, they said.

But government leaders will come under pressure to do away with inefficient state monopolies in telecommunications, Hamadoun Toure, secretary general of the International Telecommunications Union, or ITU, told a news conference.

In Africa, cellphones overtook fixed lines six years ago and now outnumber them nearly five to one, with 137,2-million subscribers in 2005, the ITU says. In sub-Saharan Africa, nine out of every 10 telephone subscribers are using a cellphone.

But the shortage of fixed lines has limited internet access, enjoyed by fewer than four out of every 100 Africans. According to ITU figures, Africa’s average monthly price for broadband is $762 per month, more than three times the cost in Asia and way out of reach of most Africans.

”We have had some countries with … up to 400% growth in mobile telephony,” Toure said.

”How do we replicate that success in broadband that will lead us to internet access in every country, in every village, every school, every university, every hospital? …That is our goal,” he added.

”The heads of state will have to make key decisions in the regulatory environment in order to approach the market, in order to attract the business leaders, and the business leaders will be able to do some real partnerships in the continent.”

Missing link

A $235-million project to build a fibre-optic submarine cable to fill what the ITU calls the ”missing link” to 21 Eastern and Southern African countries by 2009 is meant to reduce international connectivity costs by two-thirds.

But Craig Barrett, chairperson of computer chip-maker Intel, said costs needed to drop by more than 90% to make the internet widely available in Africa within five years, a goal he said the Kigali summit should set.

”Technologies are available. The issue is government policy and then the incentive for investment,” Barrett told the news conference.

Mohsen Khalil, a director of the World Bank private sector arm International Finance, said boosting internet access should promote economic growth as a whole and help meet UN ”Millennium Development Goals” of halving poverty by 2015.

”The success of the telecom industry has created an enormous demonstration effect for other private investors to say Africa is a region where, despite the perceived high risk … we can contribute to development and still make money.”

But he too warned that long-distance and international communications were still dominated by state monopolies. ”We need to deepen further reforms,” Khalil said. – Reuters