Africa’s Internet gap: 15% of world’s population just 1% of Internet users

Africa is rich in natural resources, but politically, economically and technologically backward. The Internet can change that, but the challenges are severe.

African Village

WASHINGTON, Dec. 29, 2015 — Africa is one of the last great natural treasure-troves in the world. Africa regularly makes international headlines for its wealth of natural resources, its populations of increasingly rare (elsewhere) species, thriving tourist industry and a rapidly-growing population.

Africa’s Internet usage

In spite of its natural wealth, Africa remains a political, economic and technological backwater. With regard to technology, Africa accounts for just 1 percent of Internet usage, despite being home to more than 15 percent of the world’s population.

How can a continent as rich as Africa thrive without Internet access? This is the question that has the telecommunications industry seeing dollar signs while the rest of the continent still scrambles for basic services like electrical power and education.

Africa’s Internet divide

When it comes to Internet haves and have nots, Africa is a continent divided. Internet access is generally much more prevalent in its southern regions. But with the exception of Kenya, much of Central and Northern Africa remains without internet connectivity. However, mobile phones are sweeping the continent, which bodes well for bringing in wireless technology that can someday accommodate WiFi through VSAT, satellite internet and other lower-cost options.

Obstacles to Africa’s Internet needs

African women

One major obstacle to Africa’s ability to access the Internet is bandwidth. Available bandwidth is mostly slow and intermittent in most regions. In regions that do have Internet access, bandwidth is typically hosted on servers located outside of the continent. Submarine cables account for some of Africa’s connectivity, and the rest comes from pricey satellite links.

This makes one of the biggest obstacles to the average African person’s ability to access the Internet cost—even over the obstacle of connectivity. At the moment, it is prohibitively expensive to bring Internet to Africa en masse.

Investors may provide a solution

International investors who want to gain early access to Africa’s still largely undeveloped telecommunications market may provide solutions to the cost issues. A number of networks are being developed to address Internet needs for different populations within Africa, including students, financiers and scientists.

This, in turn, is slowly reducing the cost per user for increasing bandwidth and data speed. It is the average end user in Africa who will likely be the last to receive Internet access, especially as the population skyrockets at an unprecedented rate while most people still live in poverty.

Promising rural experiments

Rural areas present a particularly thorny problem when it comes to bringing in Internet access, yet they are where it is most desperately needed. Internet access can improve government services in poor, remote communities, including access to education, medical and health care, and micro funding for small businesses.

Access to the Internet can also provide local governments and citizens with access to political news, creating more awareness.

Internet regulation—or lack thereof

Another interesting dilemma in Africa relates to how the mobile and Internet markets will be regulated—or not. There will always be a need for some regulatory control over mobile technology and Internet providers to prevent abuses that can come from profitable monopolies.

At the same time, regulation to establish baseline standards for service can ensure that competition does not leave end-users on a downward spiral of service standards with no recourse.

Africa and e-commerce

African Elementary School

Africa still has a low rate of Internet and computer literacy. This issue is largely linked to simple lack of power—stable electrical power sources are not yet established, so computer use simply is not feasible. Yet as Africa’s continent-wide power grid grows and improves, computer use and Internet access could help to alleviate some of the stark poverty in more rural areas.

African tribal art and culture, local textiles and earthenware and other consumables could help local communities establish sources of income via online sales. The youth of Africa’s population today—some African states are so young that half their population is age 25 or younger—bodes well for openness to Internet-based tools and resources once connectivity can be reliably established.

Africa’s bright future includes Internet access

Africa is the birthplace of humanity. When paleontologists want to learn more about the origins of humanity, they turn to Africa for answers. Africa is home to some of the richest resources left on Earth today, and world powers have not failed to notice.

Africa’s challenge here remains the same—to take the reins of its own future and provide the basic tools its people need to thrive—including Internet access.

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