One of this morning’s panels was on Broadband Africa, with Ben Akoh of Open Society West Africa (Soros Foundation), Eric Osiakwan of Ghana Connect, Anne-Rachel Inné of ICANN and Ashraf Patel of the Meraka Institute. Here are a few notes taken during the session:

broadband-africa

Ben Akoh gives a background of why broadband is important. He says there’s been a huge drop in prices in the last few years, thanks to wider availability of broadband, but there are still a lot of challenges.

In 2007 the GSM association announced they would spend a lot of money in increasing coverage in Africa. Now, wherever you go in Africa, you will probably have coverage. There’s been huge progress in mobile technology, We can all agree that nowadays mobile technology is progressing the most in Africa than anywhere else. Mobile phones in the African continent today have adapted to the African culture -ubuntu, social culture. However, governments often stay behind in their understanding. Akoh used to work for the UN in Ethiopia a few years ago, and he says they had to pay a rental for the internet equipment. At that time, the government did not see these tools and advancements in technology happening at the pace they were happening. Still now it’s illegal in Ethiopia to use VOIP.

Akoh says another challenge with the advancement of technology in Africa is finding sustainable business models, and also proper regulations. Although policies don’t exist in most countries to favor the development of technology, it’s slowly happening. Policy plays a key role, that’s why governments need a better understanding of internet and connectivity issues (and ICT in general).

Anne-Rachel Inné says that most of Africa is suffering of capital flight when it comes to domain names. If businesses would use their country domains as opposed to .com, this will bring more money to the country. Example: in most African countries if I send an email to the person next door, that email has to go all the way to the US to go through, and that’s costly. She says that half of the journalists in this conference don’t even know about their countries top level domain name.

Ben Osiakwan explains that the undersea cables is only one component of broadband internet in Africa. He explains how it works in Ghana, introducing Ghana Connect. If broadband is so important, why isn’t there more of it in Africa? he asks. The cost is usually the answer. He goes on to show some examples of the importance of brodband in development:

  • A 2009 World Bank Information and Communications for Development report analyzed the impact of broadband on growth in 120 countries from 1980 to 2006, showing that each 10% points of broadband penetration results in 1.21% increase in GDP in developed countries, but 1.38% in developing countries. Which means it has more impact in those countries.
  • Figures recently released by the Ministry of IT show that the ICT sector in Tunisia has posted a growth of 17.8% in 2008. Its contribution to the country’s GDP amounted to 10% in 2008 against only 3.9% in 2001. It is expected to reach 13% by 2011.

He again emphasizes the issue of capital flight. Also, it’s not available for the masses, because of cost. In this current global recession, the promotion of broadband (and the reduction of its costs) could be a good way to stimulate the economy in Africa. What’s happening in most of Africa is that the business model for broadband is high margin low volume (as opposed to low margin volume approach).

He gives the example of internet acces in Ghana, where he’s from:

  • Broadband:
    -256kbps: $1,000
    -CPE: $200
    -PC: $1,000
    -Not linear
  • Mobile:
    -Per second billing (pre or post-paid)
    -Sim card: $1
    -Handset: $30
    -Linear

He also mentions that right now in Ghana there’s a draft National Broadband Strategy that aims at reaching 50% broadband penetration by 2015. He thinks it’s possible because Ghana has had 55% mobile penetration over four years.

Is there a way we can reverse the business model? he asks.

Ashraf Patel says he wants to look at broadband from a development perspective, looking at Africa in the context of integration in a global economy. He sees the main challenges as being:

  • There’s a marginalisation of Africa in the global economy (1.2% global trade, 1% internet traffic).
  • Lack of information infrastructure
  • Only continent not fully connected to fibre
  • Bandwidth blockage
  • Economic Paradox: highest internet communication costs in the world

He then quotes Castells as saying that the world is in the midst of an ICT driven information revolution and networked economy transforming political, economics and social landscape in intense period of globalisation (Castells, 2000).

People are already talking about Web 3.0, but Telecoms 1.0 is still relevant. People in rural areas are still very much there, the vast majority of people in Africa still don’t have access.

In 2007 African internet users were less than 4% of the global amount. On average Europeans spend 2% of their monthly household income in high-speed internet, for Africans to get the same type of internet it would represent a 97% of their household income.

Obviously there are a few infrastructure, regulatory and business model factors that constitute significant barriers to broadband development in Africa.

There are a lot of issues surrounding the expansion of broadband in Africa that could be covered by reporters but are not, probably because of lack of knowledge. Reporters have a big role to play ensuring African governments do not miss out on opportunities that come with ICT opportunies.

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