- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Although Internet access took off quickly in the developed world, the story has been different in Africa, where it remains at an early stage of development.

Internet users in Africa — the second most populous continent with about 800 million people — numbered in the thousands at the end of 2002, said the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a Geneva-based affiliate agency of the United Nations.

The prospects for offering high-speed Internet services in Africa are restricted by the limited infrastructure.

With fixed-line distribution per 100 inhabitants ranging from 0.24 — that is to say, 24 telephone connections per 10,000 people — in the Central African Republic, 0.5 in Ethiopia and 1.03 in Kenya, to a high of 10.77 in South Africa, potential access is limited and tends to be focused in urban areas.

“We live under the illusion that we need 500 megabits per second access and an 80-gigabyte hard drive in order to set up a connection,” said Steve Song, who manages the Information and Communication Technologies for Development program for the International Development Research Center, a public corporation created by the Canadian government in 1970 to help developing countries use science and technology.

“If seven out of 10 phones you have in Africa aren’t really suitable for doing that kind of connectivity, it occurred to us that maybe we should be looking at different kinds of solutions.”

Thus it is no surprise that alternative access methods, particularly wireless access, are being used. These more dynamic access methods largely are driving the market and likely will have a major role to play in its growth.

However, in Africa, where access to necessities is limited for many, how great is the need for high-speed Internet access?

It is easy to consider Internet access as a luxury — something that enables users to play games, download music or watch film clips. How can it be a priority for any developing region?

“Internet may be considered a luxury by many African governments, whose citizens still lack access to basic amenities such as clean drinking water,” said Acita Dodoo, project officer for Internet policy at the ITU.

“However, failure to deploy such technologies may deny these countries an opportunity to participate fully in the knowledge economy of the 21st century,” Mr. Dodoo said.

Thus, the Internet has to be viewed as a necessity in an increasingly information-based society. Providing Internet access opens the door to a knowledge-based economy, which in turn will promote the region’s social and economic development.

But to become a reality, wireless solutions that bring great promise require investments in high-risk environments.

African telecom regimes are the last to be liberalized, and their monopolies can be expected to resist technology that threatens their revenue base.

Africt, a voluntary association that argues for lower Internet prices in Africa, said the cost of the technology poses serious constraints on economic growth.

The cost of a dial-up connection in Africa is at least as expensive as in Europe, but offers half the performance. Taking into account the vast difference in incomes in most African countries and those in Europe, the gap becomes huge. Measured as the hours one must work to pay for an Internet connection, a user in Africa is disadvantaged by a factor of 100 or more.

The monopolies exploit their advantage by keeping Internet capacity low, and by not allowing competition for information and communication technologies (ICT) providers. Africt says the prices of services must come down drastically to significantly increase use of ICTs in Africa, and the only way to do this is by deregulation, competition and foreign investment.

“Information and communication technologies have proven to be effective in driving social and economic development,” Ngathie Diop, a journalist with Senegal’s national television network, said in a report to the Association for Progressive Communications (www.APC.org).

“They have the potential to give voice to isolated people living in remote areas and to create jobs for the unemployed,” she said. “In Senegal, the number of women working in ICT community services has increased in the last two years. Today about 35 percent of cyber-cafe and telecenter owners are women — who have proved to be excellent in running these businesses.

“This situation is not unique to Senegal. Women in Ivory Coast, Guinea, Nigeria, the Gambia and Morocco have settled business running cyber-cafes, telecenters or telephone shops. This gives them more income to improve their living conditions.”

Miss Ngathie, a graduate of the University of Dakar and of Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts who is fluent in three languages, also points to the opportunities the Internet offers, such as direct access to information and training.

“The Internet has allowed millions of people in the continent to have access to e-commerce and information related to many things: their rights, health, child care, education, agriculture and environmental issues, as well as world issues in the area of international relations and world politics.

“The Internet provides them with a forum of discussion and e-conferences in which they can participate to exchange ideas and experiences with other people the world over,” she added.

Though these are encouraging trends, African governments need to provide more education and training, better ICT policies, and lower-cost ICT devices.

“Lifting the literacy rate is indispensable if governments want to stimulate computer literacy and skills. This entails breaking down social norms that restrain mothers from sending their daughters to school,” Miss Ngathie said.

“Beyond sending more girls to school, governments have to support them there until they reach higher levels of education. They also have to put more computers at schools, both primary and secondary, to expose their citizens to science and technology at an early age.

“This is an excellent way to prepare Africans for well-paid jobs and leadership responsibilities in ICT areas,” she said.

Heba Ramzy, a consultant to Egypt’s Ministry of Communication and Information Technology, said: “Maybe we are behind. Now it is the time that we have to invest in the future, to prepare our kids to play a role globally. Why should anybody else plan for their future?”

Mrs. Ramzy also serves as a steering committee member for Egypt at SchoolNetAfrica, the first African-run nonprofit organization focusing on educational technology. “Countries are at different levels [of technology access], but they all believe that information and communication technology will help students become critical learners and thinkers,” she said.

Reforming ICT policies throughout the continent will help Africans break the barriers they face in getting access to information and communication technologies. This will promote Africa’s economic growth and advancement.

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