Internet access is no longer a luxury across Africa

The problem in South Africa lies not in capacity but in connectivity. Once docked at the coast, the connections need to make it to homes and businesses. While a national fibre-optic grid is currently under construction, the lines have not reached the “last mile”, that is the actual physical connection to homes or businesses.

Telkom, the state telecoms operator, the only company in charge of the last mile, is responsible for the delay, says Africa in Fact. Consumers often wait months to get the necessary lines installed. This problem is not unique to South Africa. In Zambia, for instance, most safari lodges, which are a key part of the country’s tourism industry, are forced to depend on unreliable satellite internet connectivity, even when they are near metropolitan areas, because there is simply no other option.

Leo Mutuku, head of iHub’s Data Science Laboratory, agrees that the biggest challenge has been the last mile connections, especially outside urban areas where there are significant difficulties in accessing broadband internet. “A lot of the people living within 25kms of a fibre-optic cable do so possibly because it passes by their villages headed to the next town,” says Mutuku, adding that internet service providers do not find it viable to make significant investments laying cables to each home.

State regulation

With no private investments to support the laying of the last mile, especially in rural Africa, the government’s role in funding fibre-optic deployment is crucial. However, governments across the continent have not created enabling environments by passing appropriate laws.

“Fundamentally, the biggest issue holding back access is the slow pace of the regulatory process,” Arthur Goldstuck, a South African ICT industry analyst, says. “If the policy directives aren’t forthcoming, then regulatory advancement is not forthcoming,” he added.

Africa in Fact lists South Africa’s policy directives as including the removal of Telkom’s monopoly over the fixed-line network, the establishment of a strong regulatory policy to unbundle local loop to give other providers direct access to Telkom’s exchanges and better management of the electromagnetic spectrum on which wireless, radio and TV signals are broadcast.

African governments are slow in passing laws that provide guidance on the development and use of ICT infrastructure. Nigeria, for instance, relies on laws of yesteryear. Its ICT is currently administered under three main policy documents: the National Mass Communication Policy of 1990, the National Telecommunications Policy of 2000, and the National Policy for Information Technology of 2000.

On the other hand, Tunisia is one of the leading ICT countries. This was highlighted when Tunisians extensively used social media in ousting former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011. With an internet penetration rate of more than 41% in 2012, Tunisians are among the world’s most active users of Twitter and Facebook, according to Internet World Stats. The country’s internet infrastructure is also fairly modern, with two ground connections to Libya and Algeria and three undersea cables to Europe. However, internet connectivity and access is limited to Tunisians living along the coast.

Internet security

As with other regions, Africa also faces the threats posed by internet security and privacy issues. In its attempt to create enabling legislation, the African Union crafted the Convention on Cyber-Security (AUCC) in 2011 to provide legislation and guidance on the “organisation of electronic transactions, protection of personal data, promotion of cyber security, e-governance and combatting cybercrime”. The continental body is currently seeking ratification of the convention, but has met resistance from civil society organisations who feel the convention infringes on citizens’ rights to freedom of expression and privacy. Some of its provisions will also make it difficult for internet service providers and online businesses to operate. A vote to ratify the convention was postponed indefinitely last January.

While Africa’s growth in mobile and internet access has been rising faster over the last decade than any other region of the world, the continent is still playing catch up. It still has the lowest percentage of population accessing the internet, at only 15% in 2012. The continuing investment in infrastructure, dropping costs, rising incomes and demographics, however, will lead to a far greater growth over the next decade.

Speaking to Africa in Fact magazine, Steve Song, an advocate for better connectivity in Africa said: “Affordable access is no longer a luxury. It is a tide that raises all ships. It creates efficiencies at every level from the rural farmer to the large corporation. It can facilitate better governance through better communication and increased transparency. It can enable better healthcare, better education, better services all round. And perhaps most importantly, it opens the doors to innovation, to new ideas and new opportunities for everyone.”

Joel Macharia is an entrepreneur and consultant in technology and digital media in Nairobi, Kenya.

This article was first published by Africa Renewal.