How do we accelerate internet access in Africa?

30 January 2014


If bandwidth is like water, then Africa is a desert with Perrier vending machines everywhere. If you have money, you're fine. If you don't have money, you're dying of thirst. Although over 70% of Africans have a mobile phone, and over 90% are covered by mobile networks, less than 10% use the internet.

That means most Africans can't email CVs, research Wikipedia, self-diagnose health problems, or generally find out what is happening in the world. We all know that mobile phones have revolutionised Africa. For the first time in history most Africans can speak to one another, a game changer for a continent too long cut off from the rest of the world.

The time has come for the next revolution. The mobile internet revolution. An avalanche of cheap smartphones over the past five years means that Africans now have the devices needed to connect the internet. Nowadays the problem is no longer getting devices into the hands of Africans, the problem is connectivity.

Why is the internet so scarce in Africa?
Traditionally, data networks have been the domain of fixed line operators. In Africa it's different. With a less than 10-million landlines across a continent of one billion people, the mobile operators have led the revolution by bringing 3G coverage to the farthest corners.

The problem is that 3G is expensive. Why? Because it's a proprietary technology that requires huge capital expenditure and detailed planning, which in turn requires deep pockets and significant human resources. Add a mark-up and you have amongst the most expensive data costs on the planet.

So whilst 3G is rapidly spreading, most people, especially those with the greatest need for the internet, cannot afford it. The answer is not free 3G. It's okay that 3G is expensive. The proprietary nature of 3G and the profits generated by operators are the reason for the enormous advances in mobile technology over the past two decades.

The problem is that the price of the end product cannot be reduced to a level that is accessible at those at the bottom of the pyramid. So, how do we reduce the cost of bandwidth so that it can be accessible to all, like tap water, without slowing down technological innovation?

Tshwane free Wi-Fi
A city in South Africa has figured out a way. Starting in August 2013, Tshwane, the capital of South Africa, has successfully rolled out Wi-Fi for over 25 000 people in low income communities, with a further 1-million scheduled to be covered by end-2014, and over 3-million people to be covered by end-2015.

So what happened? A combination of timing, technology and funding innovation converged to make it possible. Historically, the basic economics and skills of building a telecom network were simply beyond the means of local government. But things have changed in the past five years.

Firstly, the explosion of smartphones means that over 50% of households now have access to a Wi-Fi enabled device. There's no need to rollout new laptops or tablets or phones. They're already out there. Secondly, the implosion of Motorola released teams of engineers 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 telco network roll outs. Whilst a 3G base station can cost up to US$50 000, the equivalent Wi-Fi access point now costs less than US$100. That's a five-hundred-fold difference!

And 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 access to the internet via free Wi-Fi access. It's may not always be as fast and reliable as 3G, but its better than nothing, and to a person standing at the bottom of the pyramid it's like an oasis in the desert.

And Wi-Fi equipment is becoming cheaper, faster and more reliable. So without having to increase annual spending, the municipality can offer a better product every year. Lastly, and most importantly, Tshwane is treating internet access in the same as water & electricity. Municipalities use tax revenues to provide subsidised basic water & electricity to all citizens. Why not the same for internet access? Internet access as a basic service is not a mere dream. It is reality today. Tshwane is proving it.

In the past your opportunities were limited to your postal code. Live at the wrong address and your world was limited. Geography is destiny. Nowadays, there is a global postal code: "www." Most Africans are still trying to find the global postal code. Free Wi- Fi is the postman.

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 Web, and bringing water to a land that has had too much desert for too long.

Original article by Alan Knott-Craig Jnr

Category: ICT

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