Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Africa Joins Global Net

Last week, a momentous advance took place on the continent as the first undersea fiber optic cable went live in five African countries simultaneously. The privately funded consortium Seacom connected Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Uganda and South Africa. Seacom intends to soon connect Madagascar, Ethiopia and Egypt. Kenya has become the gateway for Africa to the global information superhighway.

Experts predict that this development will boost commerce, education, medicine and government operations using the Internet as a platform. As the rest of the world has rapidly made strides due to Internet connectivity, Africa has lagged behind. According to Internet World Stats, Africa has only 3.5% of the world’s Internet users. Northern Africa and South Africa lead the way in the percentage of their population online. Morocco has 18.1% connected, followed by 15.7% in Tunisia and 11.6% in South Africa.

The main obstacle has been the lack of personal computers and consistent power, especially in rural areas. However, the cell phone revolution in Africa has given Africa the ability to overcome these stumbling blocks. Increasingly, mobile media is providing access to Internet content for those without desktop or laptop computers, especially in rural areas. Africans already have access to more advanced phones than most Americans typically use today. This has allowed farmers, for example, to obtain current information on prices on which to base their decisions, and it has revolutionized the approach to African agriculture.

The trend toward opening communications for Africa’s rural population soon will be aided by yet another telecommunications development – a project by Internet giant Google and the international bank HSBC to launch a 16-satellite system within the next year to extend Internet services to the nearly three billion people in rural areas round the world. This effort will be led by O3b Networks, a joint initiative involving the two companies and Liberty Global, an American-based cable television operator. Ob3 stands for “the other three billion.”

Now Africa, especially Kenya as the entry point for this new broadband network, must step up to the plate and manage this network. It is now being operated and controlled through Seacom’s network operations center in Pune, India. Moreover, broadband demands content, which must be provided. Kenya Finance Minister Uhuru Kenyatta has taken a strong step in that direction by allocating increased funding for mobile ICT to all his country’s constituencies. If Africa’s Diaspora can contribute its time, talent and resources to moving the continent forward, we will one day look back on this period as the dawn of a new era for Africa.

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