Communications Week 951002
excerpts from article "Developing world seeks highway on-ramp"
With two Internet users for every 10,000 Africans, it would seem that the
much-vaunted Internet has made little impact in Africa. And the fact that
most of this scant 0.02 percent penetration resides in South Africa would
appear to limit the Internet's pan-African impact still further. After South
Africa, the other "big" Internet countries in Africa are Egypt, with 890
users; Zambia, with 380; and Tunisia, with 310, according to the
International Telecommunication Union, which says user figures for the rest
of Africa are negligible.
But what little Internet use there is has already had an impact on the wider
African population, says Ashley Oliver, sales manager for Africa's largest
Internet service provider, Pipex International Ltd. For example, the state-
run monopoly telco in Kenya is looking at upgrading its network
infrastructure, according to Oliver, following complaints from large users,
including government departments, about capacity problems limiting the
functions they can access on the Internet. But in most of Africa, just a
basic Internet connection is welcome. The main reasons Africa has only 1.67
telephones per 1OO people - there is little money for telecoms projects when
people are hungry and homes, roads and schools need to be built - apply just
as well to explain why the continent has only 150,500 Internet users, with
nearly 149,000 of them in South Africa, Oliver says.
In many cases, direct communication links between African states do not
exist. There is only one undersea cable into sub-Saharan Africa, and calls
between a number of bordering African states are routed via Europe. Chris
Munyati, network integration manager at Zambia's biggest company, Zambia
Consolidated Copper Mines Ltd., is a frequent Internet user, particularly
for overseas communications. Munyati says he often uses E-mail even for
basic communications. When Munyati sends an E-mail, at least he knows the
message is on its way. "With the phone or fax, you can sit for hours just
waiting to get a line," he says. But surfing the Web usually is not an
option, he says, because adequate network capacity is not available.
In a continent where money for educational tools such as books is scarce.
the internet is recognized as a relatively low-cost way of bringing a wealth
of materials into the classroomo But outside financial assistance is often
still neededo The British Commonwealth, for instance, is funding a project
to take the Internet into rural African schools.
In South Africa, Pipex is participating in a program called Edu-net, which
plans to put an Internet connection in every South African township school
by the end of next year. The program, which is also being supported by
Compaq Computer Corp., Novell Inc., Olivetti and U.S. Robotics Inc., has
already put six township schools on-line.
Meanwhile, the African Internet Forum, comprising donor organizations
such as USAID and the U.N. Development Program, has been working for six
months to connect its members to the Internet. AIF board member Rob Schwere,
a senior IT specialist at the World Bank, calls the Net "the de facto and
cost-effective network for tying together the continent's donor missions."
Schwere acknowledges, however, the considerable barriers to widespread
Internet uptake in Africa. One is the intransigence of senior government
officials. he says. "They've no grasp of what the Internet can do for their
countries," Schwere sayso Another is the monopolistic mind-set of national
telcos, he says.
Schwere cites Ghana Telecom as a model for African telcos. It is no longer
state-controlled, leading to improved infrastructure and to the introduction
of Internet service. Ghana's stock exchange, for instance, cannot afford
expensive real-time stock price systems, so it uses the Web's stock pages
for up dates, says William Tevie, deputy director of systems at Ghanaian
Internet service provider Network Computer Systems Ltd.
Given the low level of penetration, Pipex is bullish on the prospects for
Internet growth in Africa, particularly in urban areas. "Some of Africa's
cities have good enough networks to support high Internet use," Oliver says.
Roger Wiesenbach [log in to unmask]