High-Speed Internet Coming to Africa

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Satellite dishes at a telecommunications center in the Ivory Coast

If you're reading this in Africa, you're one of a few who can. With just 50 million Web users across the continent, as few as 5% of Africans access the Internet, a percentage far lower than in Asia, Europe or the Americas. In only a handful of African countries do more than 1% of the population use broadband services. (Among OECD countries, broadband penetration averages 18%.) And the services that exist don't come cheap. Broadband costs more in sub-Saharan Africa than anywhere else in the world: consumers in the region spent an average of $366 each month for speedier Internet access in 2006, according to the World Bank. Users in India, meanwhile, paid just $44.

But large-scale efforts to connect the continent are picking up speed. On Sept. 9, O3b Networks — a Channel Islands–based telco backed by Google, HSBC and U.S. cable-TV operator Liberty Global — unveiled plans to offer cheap, high-speed Internet access via satellite to developing regions like Africa by the end of 2010. It's not the only ambitious scheme to bring the continent online. In recent months, work has begun on initiatives to connect countries in eastern and southern Africa — the only major populated regions not hooked up to the global broadband network of fiber-optic cables — to each other and the rest of the world through high-speed lines.

Efforts like these to connect Africa will do more than add friends on Facebook. Boosting connectivity should do the same to countries' social and economic health, stoking trade and granting citizens access to crucial online health, education and government services, economists say. Stymieing the Web's expansion in Africa until now: the fixed-line telephone networks used to transmit Internet services in much of the rest of the world are almost nonexistent across the continent. On average, there are only four lines for every 100 people — the lowest rate anywhere in the world. That has left much of Africa reliant on satellites for its Web access. But they are costly to use and offer limited capacity. O3b — short for the "other 3 billion" around the world who are unable to tap into the Web — plans to deploy spacecraft more cheaply by orbiting them at lower altitudes than traditional satellites. That should also speed up connections.

The $700 million project is only part of a flurry of telecom activity on the continent. Amid a push by Africa's leaders and telcos to modernize its networks over the next few years, a string of firms have partnered to build the East African Submarine Cable System, some 10,000 km of fiber-optic lines linking 21 countries from South Africa to Sudan. With work on the line started last year, the project is due for completion in 2009. The World Bank's $424 million Africa Regional Communications Infrastructure Program — a complementary scheme approved at roughly the same time — aims to have all major cities in eastern and southern Africa hooked up to the high-speed lines over the next decade.

(See photos of struggle and triumph in Africa here.)
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