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Africa 'leapfrogs' to wider internet access

Entrepreneurs ramp up efforts to bring access to areas held back by limited infrastructure.

Last Modified: 02 Sep 2013 17:24
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Rugged modems, low-orbit satellites and balloons are some of the latest innovations [BRCK/03B Networks/Google]

Like any other TED Talk video online, Juliana Rotich's presentation on solving Africa's internet access problem with her organisation's latest product, the BRCK modem, aroused the interest of many people.

More than 163,000 of them, in fact.

Rotich explained that her nonprofit tech company, Ushahidi [Swahili for "testimony"], wanted to tackle the problem of connectivity in Africa and created a rugged portable device with a battery that could work for up to eight hours between charges, and switch between ethernet, WiFi, 3G and, if lucky, 4G.

It is a frequent problem faced by the company, which is based in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, and is known for crowdsourcing crisis information.

"BRCK was built initially to scratch our own itch," Philip Walton, BRCK's director of software, told Al Jazeera. "We have resources that constantly need to be online and we were losing a lot of connectivity."

The video from June's TEDGlobal conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, had many comments lauding the BRCK team for providing rural communities and tech entrepreneurs an option to connect in harsh conditions.

But one commenter brought the issue of internet access home to other website visitors.

"Actually, the problem is not just connectivity; it's price and limited bandwidth too," user Tify Ndanobi said.

"While most of you probably have unlimited bandwidth and rarely ever think of it, us in Africa have to be very careful with [every] page viewed, every video played."

It may seem unfair to lump all African countries together, as economic and political situations vary dramatically across the vast continent. However, analysts said it is facilities such as power and water that become bogged down by incomplete network infrastructure throughout the continent.

We are looking at how do we move that last mile, what are the tech we can use to bridge that final gap.

Philip Walton, BRCK

The latest data from Internet World Stats, an international online market research company, suggests fewer than 16 percent of African users have access to the internet.

But the difference in Africa is that more private technology companies, such as Ushahidi and even Microsoft, are coming up with innovative ways to provide fast and affordable broadband access, and, in time, Africa might buck the global trend of relying completely on traditional cable networks.

In an article for IEEE Spectrum, a magazine published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineering, Les Cottrell, manager of networking and telecommunications at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, wrote about measuring Africa's digital development.

Cottrell said that, globally, wireless access is becoming the default means of connection - even in locations where fibre-optic cables are available, which could put Africa at the forefront of internet technology.

"The cost of the infrastructure is quite high, especially if you have to connect every home with copper cables and fibre-optic cables," Cottrell told Al Jazeera.

"I think in many cases Africa will actually 'leapfrog' the need to install hard-wired cables everywhere, and will be able to use different techniques such as the BRCK modem, the low-earth orbiting satellites or the 3G solutions to get connectivity to where they need."

Satellite vs cable

Cottrell's PingER project measures how well data is flowing between world regions in order to pinpoint internet bottlenecks.

His findings show that 2009 data rates to and from Africa was similar to Europe's rate 15 years before that.

Reliance on geostationary satellites is to blame, explained Cottrell. With a signal being relayed to and from spacecraft up to 40,000km away, online applications see significant delays and lag

Satellite could boost internet access

One company, o3B Networks, is trying to reduce that, by launching a constellation of low to medium-Earth orbit satellites to provide faster internet access. It had launched four of eight satellites by June.

Back on Earth, prices come down and speeds go up with the use of new terrestrial fibre-optic cables that connect major capital cities across Africa.

But what happens to access in rural areas?

"Typically, there may not be existing fibre-optics to all rural districts, and even if there are, they may not be available," Cottrell said. "For example, oil companies... do have [cable] routes they own that will get them to some rural areas. But they may not be allowed to sell that route to someone who wants to put a fibre-optic cable, or if they have one [they] may not be able to share it with a communications company."

When you connect [a mobile phone] to the internet, they are supposed to be plug and play - but you usually have to plug and pray...

Idris Ayodeji Bello, 'Afropreneur'

Mobile subscription boom

The telecommunications industry, with its established cellular towers across the continent, has capitalised on this lack of rural connectivity, and, according to Deloitte, has made sub-Saharan Africa the fastest-growing mobile network market.

ABI Research said in a report that 2G mobile subscriptions at the end of 2012 accounted for 62.7 percent of mobile subscriptions in Africa, while 3G represented 11 percent of the market, with carriers such as MTN Nigeria, Vodacom and MobiNil ruling the roost.

That is not enough for tech innovators such as Idris Ayodeji Bello, co-founder of start-up accelerator Wennovation Hub and a self-titled "Afropreneur" - an entrepreneur with an African focus.

Bello, who is based in the US, said that the infrastructure for internet access via mobile phones may be in place, but cellular network data is very costly and has spotty connections, especially when there are blackouts.

"When you connect to the internet, they are supposed to be plug and play, but you usually have to plug and pray for it to work," Bello said.

Another issue that entrepreneurs bring up is that using the 3G mobile protocol for applications and software can only go so far.

David Dewane is the founder of Librii, a digitally enhanced library the size of a shipping container that is deployed on the network of existing fibre-optic cables in the African continent. For Dewane, having access to broadband connectivity is elementary for projects such as Librii to run.

"Broadband is essential to the modern web," he said. "We are sort of obsessed with the highest possible speed... and the high-powered computational tools. You simply can't do that on a 3G network."

Bello and Dewane hope to move those dependent on cellular networks, especially people in rural villages, to more reliable high-speed internet to unlock access to information.

Home-grown efforts

Bello said that African entrepreneurs cannot wait for the infrastructure to catch up - and the potential for BRCK and another similar device, Otgplaya, to enhance the network, is enormous.

"Private companies need to go out into the continent and get cheap access online, either that or they support other people doing it," he said.

The Transformational Use of Information and Communication Technologies in Africa

eTransform Africa report by the World Bank and African Development Bank

View the Document

In 2012, the World Bank released a report that highlighted the home-grown technology hubs in Africa that are doing just that - from iHub in Kenya, to Activspaces in Cameroon, to BantaLabs in Senegal.

Even international companies such as Google and Microsoft have been pushing for better internet access on the continent.

Google's Project Loon involves sending solar-powered, high-altitude balloons to the edge of space to boost web access.

Microsoft took it even further through their $70m 4Afrika Initiative, where one of their projects involves using TV white spaces and solar-powered base stations to provide low-cost wireless broadband access to rural areas. The pilot project launched in Kenya in February, followed by a launch in neighbouring Tanzania in May.

Entrepreneurs such as Bello and researchers such as Cottrell said that the power problems and needs of the continent can stand in the way of any of these exciting homegrown efforts. But Cottrell said that the healthy competition and a symbiotic relationship between the backbone cable links, the cellular network and the wireless broadband developers can also overcome those issues.

"There's no doubt that, for many years to come, wide connections, fibre-optic connections will continue to be necessary," he said. "But the distribution mechanisms on the site... that may change. No longer may one have to wire every building with copper cables to every desktop.

"As for who wins [between cellular networks and wireless broadband], I would hesitate to try and make a guess to what happens. They both have their place."

Follow Umika Pidaparthy on Twitter: @UmikaP 

This article is the second in our series on technology and development in Africa. Read the first part: A technology revolution in Kenya's schools 

 

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Al Jazeera
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