Africa finally to plug in high-speed lines

A customer uses a computer at a cybercafe in Abidjan, The Ivory Coast.

TEXT OF STORY

Bob Moon: What in the world did we ever do without the Internet? Across North America, three-quarters of us are regular visitors to the World Wide Web. In Africa, on the other hand, not so many. In fact, not even 7 percent of Africans are connected. Those who are have to rely mostly on expensive satellite networks, or sluggish cellphone-based technology. The few broadband networks that do exist are way oversubscribed. But as Gretchen Wilson reports from South Africa, the arrival of some fiber-optic cables may spark a new telecommunications boom.


GRETCHEN WILSON: Cafe Galu is an Internet cafe in central Johannesburg, Africa's richest city.

Manyano Mahlakata is a 19-year-old college student. His university has Internet access. But it's so slow, it's virtually unusable. So he comes here twice a week to get online.

MANYANO MAHLAKATA: Like go to Facebook, go to Google, check my mail.

It costs a dollar an hour. A lot for his tight student budget. Today, he and his friends crowd around one computer terminal. Even here, they sometimes wait 45 seconds for a page to load.

MAHLAKATA: Sometimes I just get bored and then I just log out and end up not checking what I want to check.

What's considered high-speed Internet in Africa is about 50 times slower than what people are used to in the U.S. And it's often more expensive because lethargic telecom monopolies have dominated African markets. Alison Gillwald heads Research ICT Africa, a network of technology policy groups.

ALISON GILLWALD: We haven't seen the kind of dramatic penetration of services that one might have seen in East Asia, for example, nor have we seen the price reductions that one would hope to see. And that's very often because the markets really haven't been fully liberalized.

But things are starting to open up. And connection speeds are about to increase. Two huge fiber-optic cables have been laid on the floor of the Indian Ocean linking networks in Europe and Asia to coastal ports in Southern and Eastern Africa.

AIDAN BAIGRIE: Basically allowing countries that haven't had direct access to broadband before, an opportunity to connect with the rest of the world.

Aidan Baigrie is with Seacom, a private venture that built one submarine cable. It's 10,000 miles long and offers service providers international connections at a fraction of previous costs. Baigrie says that as Africa's local networks tap into all this new bandwidth, Internet services will become faster and more affordable.

BAIGRIE: It allows us to offer world-class services that before we couldn't offer.

Things that Americans are already used to. Like powerful company Web sites, online videos, and Internet-based phone calls. All services that will help Africa better compete with Asia and the West.

BAIGRIE: Bringing broadband to Africa opens up a whole new era in business. One of the challenges for international corporations or even small businesses looking to expand or outsource in South Africa is the huge cost of infrastructure, especially telecommunications.

The arrival of Seacom and other fibre-optic cables has been hyped up in recent months. And consumers in many parts of Africa are anxious to see the impact of the higher speeds. The cable won't solve all problems straight away, especially in regions where the underground cable networks are old and weak. Or if a computer is really out of date.

The next step is for telecommunications companies on the continent to update their local infrastructures. Some governments are already doing this.

In Johannesburg, I'm Gretchen Wilson for Marketplace.

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