Internet in Africa
The Internet in Africa is limited by a lower penetration rate when compared to the rest of the world. Measurable parameters such as the number of ISP subscriptions, overall number of hosts, IXP-traffic, and overall available bandwidth all indicate that Africa is way behind the "digital divide". Moreover, Africa itself exhibits an inner digital divide, with most Internet activity and infrastructure concentrated in South Africa, Morocco, Egypt as well as smaller economies like Mauritius and Seychelles
While the telecommunications market in Africa is still in its early stages of development, it is also one of the fastest-growing in the world. In the 2000s, mobile telephone service in Africa has been booming, and mobile telephone use is now substantially more widespread than fixed line telephony. Telecommunication companies in Africa are looking at Broadband Wireless Access technologies as the key to make Internet available to the population at large. Projects are being completed that aim at the realization of Internet backbones that might help cut the cost of bandwidth in African countries.
The International Telecommunication Union has held the first Connect the World meeting in Kigali, Rwanda (in October 2007) as a demonstration that the development of telecommunications in Africa is considered a key intermediate objective for the fulfillment of the Millennium Development Goals.
The information available about the ability of people in Africa to use the internet (for instance ISP subscriptions, host number, network traffic, available bandwidth and bandwidth cost) give an essentially homogeneous picture. South Africa is the only African country that has figures similar to those of Europe and North America: it is followed by some smaller, tourist-dependent economies such as Seychelles and Mauritius, and a few North African countries, notably Morocco and Egypt. The leading Subsaharan countries in telecommunication and internet development are South Africa and Kenya.
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Obstacles to the accessibility of Internet services in Africa include generally low levels of computer literacy in the population, poor infrastructures, and high costs of Internet services. Power availability is also scarce, with vast rural areas that are not connected to power grids as well as frequent black-outs in major urban areas such as Dar es Salaam.
In 2000, Subsaharan Africa as a whole had fewer fixed telephone lines than Manhattan, and in 2006 Africa contributed to only 2% of the world's overall telephone lines in the world. As a consequence of this general lack of connectivity, most Africa-generated network traffic (something between 70% and 85%) is routed through servers that are located elsewhere (mainly Europe).
Overall bandwidth in Africa is scarce, and its irregular distribution clearly reflects the African "inner digital divide". In 2007, 16 countries in Africa had just one international Internet connection with a capacity of 10 Mbit/s or lower, while South Africa alone had over 800 Mbit/s. The main backbones connecting Africa to the rest of the world via submarine cables, i.e., SAT-2 and SAT-3, provide for a limited bandwidth. In 2007, all these international connections from Africa amounted to roughly 28,000 Mbit/s, while Asia has 800,000 Mbit/s and Europe over 3,000,000 Mbit/s. The total bandwidth available to Africa was less than that available to Norway alone (49,000 Mbit/s).
As a consequence of the scarce overall bandwidth provided by cable connections, a large section of Internet traffic in Africa goes through expensive satellite links. In general, thus, the cost of Internet access (and even more so broadband access) is unaffordable by most of the population. According to the Kenyan ISPs association, high costs are also a consequence of the subjection of African ISPs to European ISPs and the lack of a clear international regulation of inter-ISP cost partition. For example, while ITU has long ratified that the cost of inter-provider telephonic connections must be charged to all involved providers in equal parts, in 2002 the Kenyan ISP association has denounced that all costs of Internet traffic between Europe and Africa are charged to African providers.
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Source: International Telecommunication Union.
According to 2011 estimates, about 13.5% of the African population has Internet access. While Africa accounts for 15.0% of the world's population, only 6.2% of the World's Internet subscribers are Africans. Africans who have access to broadband connections are estimated to be in percentage of 1% or lower. In September 2007, African broadband subscribers were 1,097,200, with a major part of these subscriptions from large companies or institutions.
Internet access is also irregularly distributed, with 2/3 of overall online activity in Africa being generated in South Africa (which only accounts for 5% of the continent's population). Most of the remaining 1/3 is in Morocco and Egypt. The largest percentage of Internet subscribers are found in small economies such as Seychelles, where as much as 37% of the population has Internet access (while in South Africa this value is 11% and in Egypt it is 8%).
It has been noted, anyway, that data on Internet subscribers only partially reflect the actual number of Internet users in Africa, and the impact of the network on African daily life and culture. For example, cybercafes and Internet kiosks are common in the urban areas of many African countries. There are also other informal means to "access" the Internet; for example, couriers that print e-mail message and deliver them by hand to recipients in remote locations, or radio stations that broadcast information taken from the Internet.
Number of hosts
The picture provided by the figures for the number of network hosts is coherent with those above. At the end of 2007:
- about 1.8 million hosts were in Africa, versus over 120 million in Europe, 67 million in Asia and 27 million in South America;
- Africa as a whole had fewer hosts than Finland alone;
- relatively developed Nigeria, despite its 155 million inhabitants, had one third of the hosts found in Liechtenstein with its 35,000 inhabitants; and
- the largest number of African hosts (almost 90%) were in just three countries, South Africa, Morocco, and Egypt.
The table below lists the number of hosts for African countries with more than 1000 hosts in 2007 and 2013. These countries collectively account for 99% of Africa's overall hosts. The last column for each year provides the "host density" measured as the number of hosts per 1000 inhabitants; for comparison, consider that the average host density in the world was 43 hosts per 1000 inhabitants in 2007 and 72 hosts per 1000 inhabitants in 2013.
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An indirect measure that is sometimes used to assess the penetration of Internet technology in a given area is the overall amount of data traffic at Internet exchange points (IXPs). On African IXPs, traffic can be measured in kbit/s (kilobits per second) or Mbit/s (megabits per second), while in the rest of the world it is typically in the order of magnitude of Gbit/s (gigabits per second). The main IXP of Johannesburg, JINX (which is also the largest IXP in Africa) has about 6.5 Gbit/s traffic (in Sep 2012).
IXP traffic, anyway, is only a measure of local network traffic (mainly e-mail), while most of African generated traffic is routed through other continents, and most web contents created in Africa are hosted on Web servers located elsewhere. Additionally, measurable data do not consider private peering, i.e., inter-ISP traffic that does not go through IXPs. For example, the main academic network in South Africa, TENET, has 10 Gbit/s private peering with ISP Internet Solutions both in Johannesburg and Cape Town.
The privatization of the telecommunication market, as well as the regulation of the competition in this market, are in an early stage of development in many Africa countries. Kenya and Botswana have started a privatization process for Telkom Kenya and Botswana Telecommunications Corporation (BTC), respectively. The mobile telephony market is generally more open and dynamic, and even more so is the Internet market.
The table below depicts the percentage of African countries where telecommunications markets (fixed line telephony, mobile telephony, Internet) are monopolistic, partially competitive, or fully competitive, either de iure or de facto (data refer to 2007).
The regulation of network businesses and the establishment of authorities to control them is widely recognised as a relevant objective by most African governments. A model for such regulation is provided by Morocco; after an authority was established in 1998, and Meditel entered the market in 1999 to compete with the main incumbent Maroc Telecom, the situation has been quickly developing. Based on such experiences and on the directions provided by ITU, most African countries now have local Internet authorities and are defining local regulation of the Internet market. In 2007, 83% of African countries had their own authority for Internet services and data traffic.
Uses of Internet in Africa
It is widely recognized that increased availability of Internet technology in Africa would provide several key benefits. Specifically, some of the major issues of the continent might be tackled by applications of this technology, as demonstrated by some initiatives that have already been started and that proved successful. For example, organizations such as RANET (RAdio and interNET for The communication of Hydro-Meteorological and Climate-Related Information) and the ACMAD (African Centre of Meteorological Application for Development) use Internet to develop reliable weather models for Sahel and other areas in Africa, with dramatic benefits for local agricultures.
Internet-based telemedicine and distance education could improve quality of life in the most remote rural areas of Africa. The availability of information on the network could benefit education in general, counterbalancing the general lack of local libraries. It has also been suggested that e-Government applications could indirectly alleviate widespread political issues such as authoritarianism and corruption, and they would definitely help bridge the gap between the institutions and remote rural areas. Most Web 2.0 applications developed in Africa insofar have actually been created by governments.
African economy might also benefit from broadband availability, for example as a consequence of the applicability of e-commerce and outsourcing business models that have long proved effective in Europe and North America. Currently there are many small businesses (Cybercafes, local ISPs or Wireless ISPs) that benefit from broadband availability via satellite to provide Internet connectivity solutions to local customers.
One technology that has been utilized in many African countries for the provision of Internet broadband connectivity is VSAT, which allows businesses to access the European or US Internet backbone via satellite in regions that lack terrestrial Internet access. Fiber in Africa has been restricted to big coastal cities facing North Atlantic, South Atlantic, and Indian Oceans. According to World Bank data only 37% of Africa's 1.2 billion people actually live in those regions. Therefore, satellite remains to be the most effective and viable way to reach rural areas, and thus a major portion of Africa's population. Satellite access in Africa is popular on KU band and C band, with C band being the preferred access method in countries that have heavy rainfall.
Evolution and perspectives
The African telecommunication market is growing at a faster rate than in the rest of the world. In the 2000s this has especially been true for the mobile telephony market, that between 2004 and 2007 grew three times as fast as the world's average. In 2005, over 5 billion USD have been invested in Africa in telecommunication infrastructures.
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A number of projects have been started that aim at bringing more bandwidth to Africa, in order to cut down costs for both operators and end users. At least three projects for an underseas backbone in the Indian Ocean have been started. EASSy (East African Submarine cable System), sponsored by the World Bank and the Development Bank of Southern Africa, is a cable system that will connect Mtunzini (South Africa) and Port Sudan (Sudan), with branches to several countries on the eastern coast of Africa. The Kenyan government has started a similar project named TEAMS (The East Africa Marine System), with the collaboration of Etisalat. A third project, SEACOM, is completely African-owned. SEACOM bandwidth has already been sold to several customers, including the South African network TENET.
In South Africa, the SANReN network, with a 500 Gbit/s core, has been designed to become the fastest academic network in the world; the universities of Witwatersrand and Johannesburg are already using a bandwidth of 10 Gbit/s provided by this network.
Efforts to connect previously disconnected parts of the world have been compared to previous rounds of infrastructure in Africa. The recent linking of East Africa to the global fibre-optic network generated similar visions and hopes to those that emerged in the Victorian era when railways were used to connect the previously disconnected.
With bandwidth becoming more available and less costly, the first to benefit will be institutions and companies that already have Internet access. In order for the network to reach a larger part of the population, solutions are needed for the last mile problem, i.e., to make bandwidth available to the final user. To be feasible for Africa, last mile solutions must be found that take into account the limited penetration of fixed telephony lines, especially in rural areas. Of about 400.000 rural communities that are estimated to exist in Africa, less than 3% have PSTN access. Note that providing network access to rural communities is one of Millennium Goals defined by the World Summit on the Information Society.
Most studies on this subject identify Broadband Wireless Access (BWA) technologies such as WiMAX as the most promising solution for the end user's Internet access in Africa. These technologies can also benefit from the wide availability of the mobile telephony network. Even in smaller countries like Seychelles, most Internet users already access the network via the GSM network. Providers that have 3G licenses will be able to provide WiMAX services.
Some experimentation is already being conducted in a few countries. In Kenya, the Digital Village Scheme project aims at providing government services in rural areas via wireless access. In Nigeria, Horizon Wireless is running a broadband (3.5 GHz) wireless network. Since 2007, MTN Rwanda has been working to provide broadband wireless access in Kigali. In Algeria, the Icosnet ISP and Aperto Networks have been collaborating for a business WiMAX solution. The South African authority ICASA has already assigned WiMAX licences to several providers, and Neotel is implementing WiMAX-based last mile solutions in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town and Durban.
- "Percentage of Individuals using the Internet 2000-2012", International Telecommunications Union (Geneva), June 2013, retrieved 22 June 2013
- ITU (2010)
- "Percentage of Individuals using the Internet". ITU Statistics. ITU. 2017. Retrieved 27 February 2017.
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- Livraghi (2014)
- Albert Butare (Rwanda Minister of Telecommunications), quoted in Waters (2007)
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- Hamadoun Touré, International Telecommunication Union, quoted in Waters (2007)
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- Andrew Alston, quoted in Pingdom (2008)
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- Balancing (2008b)
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- Balancing Act (2005), South Africa's MTN Spends USD60-70M on 3G Launch, «Balancing Act» nr. 264,
- Balancing Act (2008), Private Investors Sign Up for Stake in TEAMS cable project in Kenya, «Balancing Act» n. 398,
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- Computers and internet in Africa at Curlie (based on DMOZ)
- TENET, the main academic network in Africa