Bringing Africa Online

We live in an age where prolific, inexpensive online access has transformed the way people connect with one another, gather information about the world and conduct business. For many, the fact that two-thirds of the earth’s population lacks Internet access is easy to overlook.

africa-internetAs discussed in prior posts, a large percentage of those unable to access the benefits of the net reside in Africa – a continent which, despite containing more than 15 percent of the world’s population, only accounts roughly 9 percent of global Internet users.

There are several factors responsible for this problem. Traditional cable Internet infrastructure like high speed fiber-optic internet, DSL or even the (largely) antiquated dial-up internet is costly to install and maintain, putting it out of reach for many countries on the continent. Exacerbating the issue is the fact that many people live in remote, rural areas, making it more challenging to provide high-quality and reliable connections. This is due to the fact that there are only a few Internet content providers and based in Africa, it also suffers from a paucity of servers and web hosts, meaning that latency times are lengthy as data packets must physically travel to and from other parts of the world.

There are, of course, a couple of high-profile endeavors underway to try to bring affordable, reliable Internet service to Africa. Google is still invested in Loon, which uses a network of balloons – hovering simultaneously in the stratosphere – to beam Internet down from the skies. Recently the project suffered some setbacks, after researchers noticed the balloons were leaking helium. Moving forward however, the company has largely overcome this hurdle, thanks to extensive testing (even going so far as to document the fluffiness of the scientists’ socks).

By connecting the balloons in what’s called a “mesh network”, Google can now provide coverage for large swaths of territory – such as West Africa – with few ground stations. Partnering with telecommunications companies rather than relying on Wi-Fi allows the Loons to essentially serve as floating cell towers. The company has partnered with Vodafone, Telefonica and Telstra and is currently in talks with additional providers.

Google competitor Facebook has also thrown its hat in the ring. Through, the social media powerhouse is trying to combine diverse technological developments to power free-of-charge Internet solutions in areas that currently lack access. Though the company recently divulged the fact that it’s scrapped one aspect of the plan – a promising but apparently cost-prohibitive satellite scheme – other led initiatives have seen success.

Microsoft is exploring the possibility of using currently ignored portions of the broadcast spectrum – called “white space” – to deliver Internet capabilities to wide geographical areas. This is a completely wireless form of Internet access, so it doesn’t require the heavy expenditures needed to implement fiber optic infrastructure. Although there is significant competition to use white space for other purposes, Microsoft has recently conducted a trial involving 28 Namibian schools that might serve as a showcase to potential government partners of the benefits of using these frequencies for Internet connectivity.

Africa’s need for reliable, mobile broadband internet access has not escaped the attention of local service providers either. MTN Nigeria, which covers approximately 90 percent of the country and is their leading mobile operator, has deployed a 100 gigabit-per-second fiber-optic network with the assistance of Alcatel-Lucent. Growing competition among broadband providers has brought prices down dramatically, and more consumers are at a liberty to share data and send messages using various online apps.

As these and other efforts begin to bear fruit in Africa, there is some concern that growing online traffic volumes could oversaturate the capacity of the current fiber infrastructure. However, new methods of sending data along with upgrades to existing equipment have the potential to increase global capacity going forward.

The deployment of effective, cheap Internet service delivery in Africa could lead to a blossoming of new online communities, but the benefits will not be confined to the continent alone. Because new techniques and innovative procedures are being tried out, we could see changes in the standard way things are done, leading to cost reductions worldwide. Due to positive network effects, the growth of the Internet’s user base will make it more valuable to each individual user.