AP Photo/Khalil Senosi
Kenyans surf the Web at an Internet cafe in Nairobi.

Internet Access, Content in Africa Slow to Come

September 13, 2009 08:00 AM
by Liz Colville
Exemplifying the slow progress of Internet technology in Africa, a pigeon in South Africa carried a 4 GB memory stick 60 miles in one hour, eight minutes, beating South Africa’s largest Internet service provider at the task by a wide margin.

Pigeon Beats Broadband

A technology company based in Durban, South Africa, sent a pigeon named Winston on a mission: carry a 4-gigabyte memory stick 60 miles in a race against the country’s largest Internet service provider, Telkom.

An employee at Unlimited IT, the company behind the mission, had been frustrated with the slow speed of Telkom’s broadband Internet service, the BBC reports.

He was able to prove just how slow it is when the pigeon swiftly delivered the memory stick from the town of Howick to the Unlimited IT offices in Durban in one hour, eight minutes. The data was then uploaded to a computer, which took another hour. In that time, Telkom’s ADSL network had transmitted only 4 percent of the 4 GB of data.

A Telkom spokesperson said the company “could not be blamed for slow broadband services,” the BBC reports. “Several recommendations have, in the past, been made to the customer but none of these have, to date, been accepted,” Telkom’s Troy Hector told the South African news agency Sapa, according to the BBC.

Background: Internet in Africa slow, and slow to come

Internet connections in South Africa may be slow but on the continent, many are lucky to have it at all. The Internet penetration rate in Africa—the percentage of the population that has Internet access—is a mere 6.7 percent, according to the Web site Internet World Stats, using data current as of June 30, 2009.

The worldwide average, by contrast, is 24.7 percent. Further, African Internet users make up only 3.9 percent of Internet users worldwide.

Signs of Progress

Data from the World Bank Group shows that the number of Internet users per 100 Africans jumped from 6.7 to 21.8 between 2000 and 2007. Despite these promising statistics, there are still setbacks.

As the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) outlined in a report for a 2007 summit in Rwanda, Connect Africa, “effective high-speed Internet services needed for important business, government and consumer applications continue to be either very expensive (especially when compared to average local incomes) or not available, depending on the location. This is due to limited broadband infrastructure investment in many parts of Africa.”

One promising venture is 50x15. It was started by Hector Ruiz, tech company AMD’s executive chairman, who spoke about the initiative at the 2008 TED Conference. 50x15 aims to deliver Internet access to 50 percent of the world’s population by 2015.

In South Africa, 50x15 has deployed AMD’s Personal Internet Communicator (PIC) in Diepsloot Combined School’s “learning lab.” PICs are easy-to-install, low-cost devices that provide “managed Internet access for people in global, high-growth markets.” 50x15 is also working with a South African NGO, Mpilonhle, to educate youths on HIV and AIDS using the Internet.

Another challenge is providing Africans with “locally relevant content, applications and services, for both Internet and mobile,” as ITU wrote in its report, which would “support growing usage.” As it stands, Europe, North America and Asia have the most Web sites per 1,000 people, according to 2003 data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Germany has the most, with 84.7 Web sites per 1,000 people.

Some positive changes are happening in Kenya, one of the most populous countries in Africa, where 8.6 percent currently have Internet access, according to Internet World Stats. For the McClatchy blog Somewhere in Africa, Shashank Bengali reports on the arrival of Craigslist and other Internet-related developments in Kenya.

The advent of Craigslist marked “another delayed Internet milestone for East Africa,” Bengali writes. “After years of being left in the world's cyber-dust, it's been an eventful 2009. The first undersea fiber-optic cable finally arrived,” he adds, “bringing higher surfing speeds (but so far no cost savings for consumers).” Bengali notes that a large Kenyan media organization, Nation Media Group, just launched its own classifieds site. “Now if people would only use the sites,” he adds.

Reference: Internet Usage Statistics for Africa

Internet World Stats provides up-to-date statistics on Africa and other countries’ Internet usage, including data such as growth of Internet use since 2000.

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