Impact of the Internet in Africa

There’s really no hope for you if you still need convincing that access to the Internet is a good thing. Ultimately the internet is an empowerment tool.

The Internet Advantage

Its positive use can be experienced in fields such as education, employment, healthcare and generally as a stimulus to the economy.

No longer are your opportunities limited to your postal code, unless that code is “www”, in which case you’re plugged into the rest of the world.

With most people on the continent (Africa) not having access to free Internet, it means they are excluded from using the internet as an empowerment tool. They can’t e-mail CVs for job applications, conduct research (e.g. on Wikipedia), self-diagnose health problems, or generally find out what is happening in the world.

So, instead of droning on about how awesome the Internet is, the question remains: how do we go about accelerating Internet access in Africa? Alternatively: how can we make the Internet free to all on the continent?

Cost of Data

Traditionally, data networks (and as a consequence Internet access) have been the domain of fixed line telecommunications operators. In Africa, with a total of less than 10 million landlines, 3G (as provided by the mobile operators) has played the most important role in bringing the Internet to the people.

As a result it can be said that the mobile operators have revolutionised the continent, bringing wealth and opportunity whichever country they operate in.

There is a problem though - 3G is expensive.

Why? This is because 3G is a proprietary technology that requires huge capex (Capital Expenditure) and detailed planning, which in turn requires deep pockets and significant human resources. Once you add a mark-up and you have amongst the most expensive data costs on the planet.

That is not necessarily a hindrance, the proprietary nature of 3G and the profits generated by mobile operators are the reason for the enormous advances in mobile technology over the past two decades. The problem though, is that the end product is not free, nor can it viably be subsidised to the point where it can be free.

As a result of this, if we were to compare bandwidth to water, then you would be able to find Perrier in the farthest flung corners of Africa, but not a drop of clean tap water. This is ok if you have money, not ok if you have no money and are thirsty.

How do we bring Tap Water to Africa?

Two words: Government subsidies.

This can be done In the same manner as municipalities use rate-payer revenues to provide basic water & electricity to all citizens. If we are to offer access to the Internet as a basic right, then a network will need to be built and paid for by the government.

Historically this approach has been wishful thinking. The aforementioned economics of 3G networks has meant the capex requirement and technical expertise needed to run a wireless data network were simply beyond the means of local government, especially on the continent.

Things have changed in the past five years.

Firstly, the explosion of smart phones means that over 50% of households now have access to a Wi-Fi enabled device.

Secondly, the implosion of Motorola which in turn released teams of engineers who went on to form their own companies, freeing up decades of radio network expertise and experience. These start-ups have gone on to produce better equipment at cheaper prices than ever before, completely up-ending the economics of telecommunications network rollouts.

Whilst a 3G base station can cost up to a million South African Rands, the equivalent Wi-Fi access point now costs less than ZAR10,000 which makes it a hundred-fold difference.

Lastly, because Wi-Fi networks run on public access spectrum and focus on Web-specific content (rather than voice), the technical resources required are a fraction of those needed to operate a 3G network.

The net result is that a municipality can now afford to provide citizens free Wi-Fi access. It’s not as fast and reliable as 3G, but it is better than having no Internet access, and to a person standing at the bottom of the pyramid this is like an oasis in the desert.

Also, Wi-Fi networks are becoming cheaper, faster and more reliable every year. So, without having to increase annual spending, the municipality can offer a better product every year.

Now that’s what I call sustainable.

It’s not a question of if access to the Internet will be a basic human right one day. It’s a question of when.

Africa has the opportunity to leapfrog the rest of the world, connecting its citizens to the Internet, and bringing water to a land that has had too much desert for too long.

Image credit: Charleston's The Digitel / Flickr CC by 2.0

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