Africa and the Internet

The USC Online Journalism Review has an excellent article about the state of Internet penetration in Africa. Needless to say, this region has largely missed out on the Internet revolution, although penetration and usage is growing exponentionally.

Here is where Internet penetration stands today, along with an article excerpt:

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    Throughout the countries of sub-Saharan Africa, access to media is largely an urban phenomenon. Newspapers and Internet cafes, though expensive, are available in every African capital; but in rural areas — where it is often a struggle to achieve basic health care and education — a newspaper is often a luxury, and the Internet is a distant dream.

    According to statistics released last Feb. 29 by internetworldstats.com, there were about 900 million people living in Africa, of which slightly more than 10 million had Internet access — and roughly a third of all users are in South Africa. However, the total number of Internet users on the continent represents a gain of more than 123 percent from figures released in December 2000.

Wanted: Cheap computers and cheap Interenet access

The demand for communications in the region is not hard to find — in countries where cellular phones and coverage have become affordable, cellular adoption is booming. Nigeria is arguably the fastest-growing mobile market in the world.

Unfortunately, getting access to the wired Internet is a much bigger challenge – computers and conventional Internet access are still prohibitively expensive. There are parts of Africa where telecoms companies won’t lay copper wires for fear that the wire will be stolen for resale.

But there is hope in the form of unlicensed wireless communications — Wi-Fi and WiMAX (a standards-based form of fixed wireless communications).

Wi-Fi is already making a difference. Last year, I spoke with a nonprofit organization in South Africa that has outfitted a van with an onboard satellite dish and Wi-Fi access points. The van will park next to a school and use Wi-Fi to provide computers within the school with Internet access; this allows students and teachers to send and receive emails and browse the Internet. Like a bookmobile, the van goes from school to school, giviing students brief access to a much bigger world. Without Wi-Fi, students would have no Internet access at all.

I believe that Wi-Fi and WiMAX will finally bring low-cost wireless broadband to the continent. And computer prices will continue to fall, coupled with an affordable Linux operating system. Note that Microsoft could miss out on this market entirely if it continues gouging these poorer countries with expensive software that is rarely localized into the native languages (more on this later).

Here is the article.

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