Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Dark Continent

In places where hunger, AIDS and poverty are rampant, and electricity is often not guaranteed, is the internet really a priority? Last month I spoke in Cape Town about digitisation at the IBF conference. It is clear that the third world is far behind the developed world in technology infrastructure and connectivity, but where as Asia and Southern America are making ground, the lights are clearly switched off in Africa. The issue is not about entertainment and leisure reading but about communications and importantly education.

Attempts to bring affordable high-speed Internet service to the masses have made little headway on this continent. Less than 4 percent of Africa’s population is connected to the Web and most subscribers are in countries that have strong western connections and relative stability such as South Africa and North Africa.
The lack of infrastructure is the biggest problem. In many countries, civil conflict has destroyed what existed and continuing political instability deters new investment. Africa’s only connection to the Internet’s backbone is still the 2002 cable running from Portugal down the west coast of Africa.

Ironically, E-mail messages and phone calls sent from some African countries have to be routed through Britain, or even the United States and about 75 percent of African Internet traffic is routed this same way at a significant costs. Many national telecommunications companies link to the sea cable and often maintain an access monopoly which further restricts usage. East Africa is heavily dependant on 20 year old and aging satellite technology for Internet service which offers slower and reduced bandwidth.

The result is that Africa remains the least connected region in the world. It is hoped that the ‘one laptop per child’ programme will start to make a difference, but we are seeing a gulf between not just the haves and have not’s, but the connected and unconnected widen.