15 September 2010

Internet needed in rural Africa

It is nice to witness more and more leaders stating that Internet connectivity is urgently needed in developing worlds. UNESCO, Jeffrey Sachs, and many others join the choir that sings the benefits that Internet connectivity and bandwidth bring to Africa. This is a far cry from the 'why' question predominantly asked until recently. With the emergence of policies in the West that broadband Internet connectivity is a right for all its residents, it is good to now see the 'why Internet in Africa'-question fading away.

Also it is exiting to see that satellites are being launched and (sea)cables being rolled out to connect Africa. We are eagerly awaiting lower costs of bandwidth, as up to now we have not seen a decrease in pricing; We continue to pay well over USD 1,000 per month for a dedicated 128 kb/s connection. The ever growing demand for bandwidth - even to be able to keep doing what we already do - effectively means the cost of service continues to rise.

The causes of the continued high prices of bandwidth are known: Investors recuperate their investments first, urged to do so in these perilousness times and unknown territories. It also becomes apparent that the costs of transporting 'the last mile' (or in our case the last hundred kilometers) is the next hurdle. Quotes for terrestrial connectivity between rural areas and the 'backbone' in urban areas are surreal, multiple times the cost of bringing the (international) bandwidth to that urban area. And thus a 1 Mb/s committed connection, costing less then USD 200 per year in London, still cost us more then USD 80,000 per year. Although we (also) need such bandwidth – actually much more to satisfy the live saving needs in our rural community - this kind of money is just inconceivable.

Then, all this does not take into account the investments in equipment, the cost of transport, and the cost of local staff performing in operations and maintenance. We have witnessed that current equipment raises major hurdles to perform in rural areas. Circumstantial facts generate often at leasts one major 'show stopper', making most equipment to fail in a rural African environment.

I am glad that with students of the University of Zambia, and the Copperbeld University, and with collaborating applied research and expert partners from all over the world, we are venturing on the path of applied technology research. Through such long term activities we will be able to sustain an inspirational role. Also it provides hope to generate real technological breakthroughs which can perform well in the rural African environments, and thus, on the long run, will facilitate the role out of Internet on this continent.