From The New York Times, July 22, 2007
A customer in the Bourbon coffee shop in Kigali, the Rwandan capital, uses a wireless connection. (Riccardo Gangale for The New York Times)
Africa, Offline: Waiting for the Web
By RON NIXON
ON A MUGGY DAY IN KIGALI IN 2003, some of the highest-ranking officials in the Rwandan government, including President Paul Kagame, flanked an American businessman, Greg Wyler, as he boldly described how he could help turn their small country into a hub of Internet activity.
Mr. Wyler, an executive based in Boston who made his fortune during the tech boom, said he would lace Rwanda with fiber optic cables, connecting schools, government institutions and homes with low-cost, high-speed Internet service. Until that point, Mr. Wyler, 37, had never set foot in Africa — he was invited by a Rwandan government official he had met at a wedding. Mr. Wyler never expected to start a business there; he simply wanted to try to help the war-torn country.
Even so, Mr. Wyler’s company, Terracom, was granted a contract to connect 300 schools to the Internet. Later, the company would buy 99 percent of the shares in Rwandatel, the country’s national telecommunications company, for $20 million.
But after nearly four years, most of the benefits hailed by him and his company have failed to materialize, Rwandan officials say. “The bottom line is that he promised many things and didn’t deliver,” said Albert Butare, the country’s telecommunications minister.
Mr. Wyler says he sees things quite differently, and he and Rwandan officials will probably never agree on why their joint venture has been so slow to get off the ground. But Terracom’s tale is more than a story about a business dispute in Rwanda. It is also emblematic of what can happen when good intentions run into the technical, political and business realities of Africa.
Attempts to bring affordable high-speed Internet service to the masses have made little headway on the continent. Less than 4 percent of Africa’s population is connected to the Web; most subscribers are in North African countries and the republic of South Africa.
A lack of infrastructure is the biggest problem. In many countries, communications networks were destroyed during years of civil conflict, and continuing political instability deters governments or companies from investing in new systems. E-mail messages and phone calls sent from some African countries have to be routed through Britain, or even the United States, increasing expenses and delivery times. About 75 percent of African Internet traffic is routed this way and costs African countries billions of extra dollars each year that they would not incur if their infrastructure was up to speed.
“Most African governments haven’t paid much attention to their infrastructure,” said Vincent Oria, an associate professor of computer science at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and a native of the Ivory Coast. “In places where hunger, AIDS and poverty are rampant, they didn’t see it as critical until now.”
Africa’s only connection to the network of computers and fiber optic cables that are the Internet’s backbone is a $600 million undersea cable running from Portugal down the west coast of Africa. Built in 2002, the cable was supposed to provide cheaper and faster Web access, but so far that has not happened.
Prices remain high because the national telecommunications linked to the cable maintain a monopoly over access, squeezing out potential competitors. And plans for a fiber optic cable along the East African coast have stalled over similar access issues. Most countries in Eastern Africa, like Rwanda, depend on slower satellite technology for Internet service.
The result is that Africa remains the least connected region in the world, and the digital gap between it and the developed world is widening rapidly. “Unless you can offer Internet access that is the same as the rest of the world, Africa can’t be part of the global economy or academic environment,” said Lawrence H. Landweber, professor emeritus of computer science at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, who was also part of an early effort to bring the Web to Africa in the mid-1990s. “The benefits of the Internet age will bypass the continent.”
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