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Africa, the final telecom frontier

May 25, 1998 Web posted at 11:45 AM EDT

by Mike Portlock

(IDG) -- South Africa is among the Top 15 countries in the world when ranked by the number of Internet nodes, but even here, the first world telecommunications network in the commercial centers contrasts radically with the low penetration of services in the more rural and remote areas, particularly the previously independent homelands.

The academic community developed its own Internet activity (UNINet) with local access to the full Internet almost a decade ago. SANGONet, Internet Africa and Internet Solutions established commercial operations ahead of the worldwide boom. Today there are more than 70 Internet service providers (ISP), including a number of multinationals, some of which have acquired shares in local companies.

With its low-cost international leased lines to bordering nations and healthy bandwidth on the fiber link to Europe and the U.S., South Africa has become the Internet hub for Southern and East Africa.

Elsewhere the picture is much less advanced. Many countries have developed some form of Internet access -- either a local, dial-up store-and-forward electronic-mail service with a gateway to the Internet or a full leased-line service. Some have achieved live Internet public access services, but generally there is little activity outside the capital or main commercial cities. There are particularly active markets in Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Uganda, each of which has a number of ISPs.

However, in most countries, high telecommunications charges and small markets result in a relatively expensive service, particularly when judged against local economic conditions. The cost of a low-volume Internet account averages about $65 per month (at best prices), and this, coupled with high local telephone call rates, means services are currently available only to the elite.

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Still, there is a growing demand for access to full Internet services in the cities, and the use of low-cost dial tariffs plus efforts to build shared multipurpose telecenters for communities in more remote areas should further fuel demand.

E-mail is the primary driver toward Internet usage. It represents a major improvement over fax and radically reduces cost of access to the rapidly growing online global environment, which many progressive African organizations see as key.

Octavian Temu, managing director at National Insurance Corp. in Tanzania and chairman of the Organisation of Eastern and Southern African Insurers, demonstrated this in a keynote speech at the group's recent meeting in Harare, Zimbabwe. He stressed the importance of the Internet to the future of the African insurance industry and the need "to take deliberate measures to actively develop a positive image."

Web sites are becoming more common, particularly with international organizations such as Sheraton hotels. Their Tanzanian site, developed by CATS-NET, a Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, systems integrator and ISP, is a strong pointer to future opportunities for East African travel and tourism.

However, sufficient international bandwidth is still a major problem for many African countries. Only recently did circuits larger than 64K bit/sec. became available outside South Africa. Most international connections are carried via satellite with links into the U.S. and Europe. Generally, African ISPs pay the full cost of connection to the U.S. or Europe, thus giving developed countries' ISPs subsidized access to Africa's Internet while increasing the cost Africa must bear. However, the use of VSAT hubs may reduce these burdens.

Internal telecommunications are also a hindrance. While many countries are modernizing their networks, their switching and routing technology remains unreliable, and teledensity is very low. On a regional basis, Africa has the least developed infrastructure of any part of the world.

So there remain many problems on the African continent, but there is also a strong will to succeed. This, combined with a number of recent international development assistance initiatives, should pave the way for wider access to information and commercial opportunities in the future.

Portlock is managing director of TBII Europe Ltd., a unit of Technology & Business Integrators in Woodcliff Lake, N.J. He can be reached at


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