Internet Connectivity for Africa:
The Status of the Internet and Related Developments
By Mike Jensen
More than three-quarters of the capital cities in African countries have developed some form of Internet access-either a local dial-up store-and-forward e-mail service with a gateway to the Internet or a full leased-line service-43 of the 52 nations on the continent. Of these, 36 countries and territories have achieved live Internet public-access services in the capital cities: Algeria, Angola, Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Côte d'Ivoire, Djibouti, Egypt, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mauritius, Morocco, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Réunion, Senegal, Seychelles, South Africa, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Tunisia, Uganda, Zaire, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
As a result of various international and national initiatives, it is expected that many of the remaining capitals also will shortly have full Internet facilities. Plans are in place in Chad, Congo, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone. This leaves only 8 countries and territories with capital cities that remain without full Internet access or any known plans for achieving full Internet connectivity: Cape Verde, Comoro Islands, Equatorial Guinea, Libya, Mauritania, São Tomé and Principe, Somalia, and Western Sahara.
An indicator of the maturity of the Internet service provision sector is given by the number of ISPs competing with each other. Most capitals with Internet access have more than one ISP, and 11 countries have particularly active markets: Côte d'Ivoire, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal, Tanzania, Uganda, Zimbabwe, and of course South Africa, which is among the top 15 countries in the world when ranked by number of Internet nodes. The countries with only one public-access full-service ISP are Algeria, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Malawi, Mauritius, Niger, Seychelles, Tunisia, and Zaire.
Of the countries with full Internet access, only Burkina Faso, Mauritius, Morocco, Senegal, South Africa, and Zimbabwe have pervasive local dial-up facilities outside the capital city, whereas Benin, Botswana, Egypt, and Kenya have services in their second major city.
Reflecting the high telecommunications costs and the small markets, often supplied by a single operator, charges for dial-up Internet access are generally higher in Africa than elsewhere. Currently, the average cost of a low-volume Internet account in Africa is about $65 a month for a basket of the lowest-priced services in each country-in some cases only e-mail. Charges vary greatly, however: between $10 and $250 a month, largely reflecting the immaturity of the market in some nations. As a result, this currently means that in some countries, even if a computer is available, the service is beyond the reach of all but the top elite. But as a result of the rapidity with which new ISPs are entering most markets, the price of access is expected to drop considerably whenever it is more than $100 a month.
Probably a more significant factor in the longer term is the telephone call charge to dial the service provider, which is usually the major cost. This is high in many countries-even for a local call-but even more of a barrier is the absence of nationally available service in most countries, which effectively serves to cut off the majority of the population from low-cost access to the Internet. About 70-80 percent of Africa's population resides outside major cities, and local dial access facilities for them are still very rare.
Even though there is clearly demonstrated demand for access to full Internet services in the capitals and larger towns, the limited level of computerization and the higher communications costs outside these areas have suggested there may be insufficient demand in rural areas at present to launch nationally accessible services. However, the use of local dial tariffs for 800-number-type access-such as that provided for ISPs in Burkina Faso, Morocco, Senegal, and Zimbabwe-is one low-cost method of speedily establishing a national presence to build the demand levels that would justify the establishment of points of presence (POPs) outside the capitals. Efforts to build shared, multipurpose telecenters for use by communities in remote areas are also likely to further increase demand for these services.
In the past, X.25 packet-switched-based services were the most popular method of establishing wide-area data networks, but because of their high-cost, traffic-based tariffs, they are used mainly by banks and other large corporations requiring secure, real-time, low-volume data transactions such as credit card verification. Prices for international traffic on the PSDNs in Africa are often $10-$15 per 64 kilobytes, although some value-added networks such as SprintNet roll average traffic charges into an hourly rate that usually varies between $24 and $30 per hour. SITA's charges vary between $10 and $35 an hour, or $75/Mb. Using Internet protocols (TCP/IP) over X.25 networks is even more expensive because of the inherent inefficiencies of using one packet protocol inside another one, which results in unfilled X.25 packets' traveling over the network.
Although packet-switched networks also have been used for international access to databases and remote e-mail networks, these functions are quickly being superseded by the Internet, especially because most commercial database services such as Dialogue and Datastar have now become accessible also via the Internet.
Reflecting the high cost of full Internet-based services and also because of the overriding importance of electronic mail, the e-mail-only store-and-forward services with dial-up connections to the Internet are generally continuing to attract subscribers. Access to e-mail represents a quantum jump from fax in functionality and slashed costs for access to the world's rapidly growing online environment. Electronic mail still is responsible for the most traffic on the Internet. An increasing number of mail-based offline applications are being developed, and it is already possible to update a Web site or make a purchase by e-mail. In addition, with the rate at which full Internet services are being installed in African countries, it is unlikely that by the end of the decade, any country will be without this facility in its capital city.
A recent development of note has been the rapidity with which African public telecom operators (PTOs) have started to establish Internet services. PTOs have recently brought full Internet services on stream in Angola, Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Gabon, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritius, Mozambique, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. Now similar moves are afoot in Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, and Tanzania. This follows trends in the developed countries, where almost all of the major PTOs have established Internet services.
Although there are still considerable human resources issues to be resolved in obtaining the necessary skills to manage these services, they could have a significant positive impact on the cost and accessibility of the Internet given the much larger economies of scale that PTOs can apply to the provision of telecommunication-based services.
Very few of the PTOs have officially defined themselves as the only supplier (i.e., when private companies are barred from reselling Internet services, such as in Ethiopia), but in quite a few cases there have been existing regulations restricting resale that have not always been obeyed to the letter by private ISPs-such as in Zimbabwe-but the PTOs have usually turned a blind eye. Other countries have been more extensively liberalized, and the PTOs have no direct role in the growing ISP market.
The larger multinational Internet providers-such as CompuServe, EUnet, UUNET, and Global One-are also now beginning to move into African countries and are expected to wrest a significant share of the market from the smaller local companies, although in some cases they are restricted by regulations.
On a regional level, SITA, the airline cooperative, has recently emerged as an important influence on connectivity in Africa. SITA's commercial division, SCITOR-recently renamed Equant-which was formed to service the nonairline market, has been making available its X.25 packet-switched network, which has dial-up points of presence in 40 African countries. Subscribers of ISPs in Europe and North America who are members of IPASS (a group of ISPs that share their POPs) can access these points of presence for $0.22 a minute. See http://www.ipass.com.
Access to sufficient international bandwidth for carrying out interactive activities over the Internet is still a major problem in most African countries. Many of the international connections to the global Internet operate on analog circuits rated at 9.6 Kbps but that are often pushed to 14 Kbps and sometimes to 24 Kbps. None of the countries except South Africa had international circuits larger than 64 Kbps until recently, but 128 Kps connections are becoming increasingly common.
Aside from the marine optical fiber link from South Africa to the hub in the Canaries and the nations of Djibouti, Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia, which have access to the SEA-ME-WEA cable, most of the other international connections are carried via satellite. However, countries sharing borders with South Africa have lower-cost terrestrial links, and this has resulted in most of the ISPs in the neighboring countries connecting to the South African Internet infrastructure.
Most of the other Internet circuits in Africa connect to the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, as well as one to Italy, where the major suppliers are AT&T, BT, Global One, UUNET/AlterNet, MCI, NSN, Sprint, BBN, and France Telecom/FCR. Generally, ISPs must pay the full cost of the connection to Europe or the United States, which effectively gives the developed-country ISPs subsidized access to Africa's Internet and further increases the costs that ISPs in Africa must bear. Aside from the South African hub for neighboring countries, either regional backbones or links between other neighboring countries are currently nonexistent.
Except for the larger service providers, many of the African ISPs are using IBM-compatible PC-based Internet systems, most of which run a free version of UNIX called Linux (http://www.linux.org), which provides a flexible high-performance, low-cost Internet server. Most of the large service providers use Sun Microsystems RISC-based servers, DEC Alpha servers, and IBM AIX machines. Windows NT is now also becoming increasingly popular among smaller ISPs because of its ease of maintenance; however, to support the same number of users, it requires substantially more hardware resources than the UNIX implementations for the PC.
Most countries in Africa have some form of local or internationally hosted Web server with varying degrees of comprehensiveness, but the quantity of information is generally very limited when compared with equivalent sites in developed countries.
Universities in most African countries have e-mail connectivity at a minimum, and about 10 universities already have full Internet connectivity. However, Internet facilities at most of the universities are restricted to staff use. Graduate students often are able to obtain access, but the general student population is usually without access.
Barriers and Prospects
Because the mass utility of the Internet depends to a great extent on the quality of the underlying telecommunications infrastructure, the poor quality of the network still remains a basic impediment to rapid developments in this area. Most African countries are experiencing fairly rapid extension and modernization of their telecommunication networks, but sub-Saharan Africa's teledensity has continued to remain at less than one per 200 inhabitants, most of the telecommunication network is analog and many sections are highly unreliable, especially during the rainy season.
On a regional basis, Africa has the least developed infrastructure, with only 2 percent of the world's telephones and 12 percent of the population, compared with other developing regions. Latin America has 6 percent of the lines and 8 percent of the population. Asia has 13 percent of the lines and 57 percent of the population.
There is a high level of variability between African countries in the state of their existing telephone networks. Some African countries have made telecommunications a priority and are installing digital switches with fiber-optic intercity backbones and the newest cellular and mobile technology. For example, among the world's most sophisticated national networks are those in Botswana and Rwanda, where 100 percent of the main lines are digital, compared with 49.5 percent in the United State. At the other end of the scale, countries like Madagascar and Uganda have highly unreliable analog telephone systems and poor national links between urban centers. Such countries as Mali, Niger, and Zaire have only one telephone line for every 1,000 people.
The liberalization of the sector that is occurring in some countries will undoubtedly improve the situation substantially during the next few years. However, in many countries governments still see the telecommunications sector as a very important part of their revenue base, and public-network operators are not free to reinvest their profits in network development. If this continues, it may be an even greater constraining factor than the moves to allow private-sector involvement that are now taking place.
In Africa, a number of large-scale telecommunications infrastructure building projects have been announced that are likely to substantially improve the information infrastructure on the continent before the year 2000. The most notable of them is AT&T's Africa One, which aims to put an optical fiber necklace around the entire continent, but it has not yet been finalized.
The South African PTT (Telkom) has announced the SAFE (South Africa-Far East) project in collaboration with Malaysia Telecom, which plans to lay a fiber cable between South Africa and Malaysia with various spurs along the way. This will assist Telkom's strategy to become a hub for African traffic, having also built a high-capacity very-small-aperture-terminal (VSAT) ground station, and will link surrounding countries with optic fiber. The infrastructure will pick up regional intercontinental traffic to be routed out through its existing SAT-2 fiber link to the European and North American backbone and to Asia once the SAFE project is completed. In North Africa, the SEA-ME-WEA fiber cable has recently been laid along the Red Sea and across the Mediterranean and is already providing high-bandwidth connections to some African countries along the way, such as Djibouti and Egypt.
The African satellite consortium owned by the African PTOs-RASCOM-has advanced plans to launch its own satellite in 1997. In addition, the ITU has announced the availability of some funds through its Initiative 2000 project to assist in improving themost glaring gaps in the PANAFTEL terrestrial network. The East African Co-operation is planning a high-speed digital backbone linking Dar es Salaama, Tanzania; Kampala, Uganda; and Nairobi, Kenya.
Because of the high cost and low international bandwidth available in many African countries, increasing attention has recently been drawn to the possibility of using satellites for Internet services that use VSATs. VSATs offer reasonably high bandwidth (64 K to 8 Mbps) and substantially lower costs than most PTO-supplied, international leased circuits. However, regulatory barriers have so far stymied most attempts to use this technology, except in Ghana, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia, where the telecommunications market has been substantially relaxed. ISPs in those countries have rapidly adopted VSAT technology; VSAT hubs in Gabon and Ghana are looking to bring in regional traffic; and the PTA bank is also planning a VSAT-based network to link institutions in the COMESA countries.
The recent availability of the higher-powered KU-band satellite footprint in northern Africa, southern Africa, Djibouti, Eritrea, and Ethiopia and the prospect of other KU bands' shortly being directed at Africa further improves the potential for VSAT. This waveband will result in sharply decreased equipment costs for the ground stations, which cost only $10,000 for full two-way transmission capabilities.
Within the decade, other satellite-based communications systems being planned-such as Iridium and Teledesic-and new projects-such as helium-supported stratospheric telecommunications platforms-are expected to radically improve access from the most remote areas of the continent, but the costs are unlikely to be within the reach of the average African citizen until the first decade of the next century.
With increasing worldwide recognition of the importance of the Internet in accelerating development, a number of recent international development assistance initiatives have improved the prospects for wider access to information and communication networks on the African continent. Of the more important events that have helped to accelerate connectivity in Africa was the Addis Symposium on Telematics for Development, held in April 1995. Africa's largest-ever gathering of computer and telecom experts, it brought together more than 250 representatives from 38 African countries, 31 different African PTTs or telecom ministries, and almost all of the major forces in international computer networking development projects.
The recommendations the symposium produced stimulated the subsequent Conference of African Ministers responsible for social and economic planning to instruct the UN Economic Commission for Africa to set up a high-level working group to chart Africa's path onto the global information highways. Hosted by the Egyptian Cabinet Information and Decision Support Center in Cairo and supported by Canada's International Development Research Centre (IDRC), UNESCO, and the ITU, the expert group developed a framework document titled the African Information Society Initiative (AISI), which was adopted at the subsequent meeting of the Conference of African Ministers in May 1996. That, combined with the Abidjan African Regional Telecommunications Development Conference in the same month, created significant internally generated pressure from the concerned ministries to urge their administrations to adopt appropriate regulatory, tariff, and service provision policies.
In supporting the High-Level Working Group, a study on future information-infrastructure-building activities in Africa was conducted through a collaboration between IDRC, BellaNet, UNECA, UNESCO, and the ITU, called the African Network Initiative (ANI). It identified a substantial number of information and communications technology (ICT)-related development projects being planned or in process in Africa. This was recently updated in Morocco at a meeting of donors and executing agencies involved in ICTs in Africa, which also agreed to establish an ongoing forum for information exchange on such projects and to support the AISI process.
Many of these initiatives are part of the AISI Framework Subprogramme on Connectivity. Of the projects identified, among the potentially most influential activities are:
1. The UN secretary-general's System-Wide Initiative on Africa, which includes ICTs as one of the major components in a $11.5-million program called Harnessing Information Technology for Development, supported by the various UN partners.
2. The $15-million Leland Initiative, aiming to provide about $500,000 per country to assist in development of Internet connectivity in 20 African countries in return for agreements to liberalize the market to third-party Internet service providers and to adopt policies that allow for the unrestricted flow of information. Assistance is in the form of equipment, expertise, training, and free circuits for the first year.
3. The ITU's program for Africa, resulting from the 11-million Swiss franc profits from Telecom95, as well as from various rural, community telecenter, health, and satellite projects emanating from the Buenos Aires Action Plan being conducted in cooperation with UNESCO, IDRC, WHO, and others.
4. IDRC's Acacia program, which has obtained CAN$60 million over the next five years to develop the use of ICTs in communities in Africa.
5. The commerce-oriented TradePoint initiatives of UNCTAD, which has made Africa the priority region for the next two years. UNCTAD has obtained a commitment from the European Union for 30 million ECUs for the regional development of local trade efficiency networks in Africa.
6. The multidonor InfoDev fund being established by the World Bank, which has approved the $500,000 South African Telematics for African Development Consortium and the $1-million African Virtual University Project.
7. UNESCO's IIP program, which-with funding from the Italian and Dutch governments-has already been executing the Research and Information Network for Africa project in about 10 African countries, including Mozambique, Senegal, Swaziland, and Zambia.
8. The Department of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, which is considering funding high-bandwidth Internet connections to universities in eight African countries including Burkina Faso, Eritrea, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania, and Zambia.
9. UNDP's Africa Bureau, which has agreed to a $10-million fund to improve Internet connectivity in 10-12 African countries, to be jointly executed with the ECA.
10. UNDP's SDNP, which is assisting with local telematics network development in many African countries including Angola, Benin, Malawi, Morocco, and Mozambique.
11. USAID's RCSA office and its Productive Sector Growth and Environment Office of the Africa Bureau, which has launched the AfricaLink project. The project fund equipment, training, and some communications costs to connect about 100 African institutions to local e-mail service providers.
12. UNEP's Mercure project, which uses VSAT technology to establish an environmental information exchange network in Africa. UNEP is cooperating with the ITU to examine the possibility of using the spare bandwidth of the network for other functions.
13. The European Office for Outer Space Affairs, which is proposing
the COPINE project to donate ground stations and transponder time
to African research institutions.