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Providing Internet Access to Africa

A non-profit tech company, run by owner Juliana Rotich, Ushahidi – which is Swahili for “testimony” has developed a robust portable device (the BRCK modem) that has a battery which can last for maximum 8 hours without charging, as well as the ability to change between ethernet, WiFi, 3G and occasionally even 4G.

This has sparked a significant amount of interest in more than 163,000 people, who saw Juliana Rotich’s presentation on “solving Africa’s internet access problem” using the company’s new product on TED Talk.

Access to the internet is a common problem that the Kenya-based company is faced with, and is renowned for crowdsourcing crisis information.

BRCK was initially designed in order to solve the company’s problems, as they were in constant need to be online yet were often unable to establish stable connectivity.

The video that was part of the TEDGlobal conference held in Edinburg, Scotland in June, catalysed admiration of the BRCK team for providing people in rural areas with a means to internet access despite harsh conditions.

However, one comment, posted by user Tify Ndanobi, defined the issue of internet access to other website users

Actually, the problem is not just connectivity, its price and limited badnwidth too” she wrote. “While most of you probably have unlimited bandwidth and rarely ever think of it, us in Africa have to be very careful with every page viewed, every video played.”

Indeed, internet access in Africa is some of the most expensive in the world. Recently, research conducted by Netflix found that bandwidth in Africa was almost double the price of Australian IP transit – which is the most expensive in the developed world.

Although it may not seem fair to group African countries together due to the varying of economic and political situations across the continent, analysts have said that it is facilities like electricity and water that become ensnared due to insufficient network infrastructure in the continent as a whole.

Internet World Stats – an international online market research company – has reported data that suggests less than 16% of African users have internet access. The key difference in Africa, however, is that private tech companies including Ushahidi and Microsoft are introducing fresh, unconventional ways to provide reliable, affordable broadband access.

It is said that, with time, Africa might bypass the global norm of depending entirely on conventional cable networks.

Les Cottrell, the manager of networking and telecommunications at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory wrote about evaluating Africa’s technological development in an article for IEE Spectrum, said that wireless access is becoming the default method of connection, even where fibre-optic cables are accessible – this has the potential to position Africa at the front line of internet technology.

Satellite vs Cable

Cottrell’s PingER programme evaluates how effectively the data is moving between different regions of the world in order to locate internet congestion.

The findings report that data rates to and from Africa in 2009 were similar to that of Europe’s 15 years before then.

Cottrell explained that dependence on fixed satellites is to blame. The signal is transferred to and from spacecraft that are located up to 40,000 km away – and therefore online applications experience notable lag and delays.

A company called o3B Networks is making efforts to minimize these effects by launching a set of low to medium-Earth orbit satellites in order to provide quicker internet access.

The use of new fibre-optic cables that are connecting capital cities across Africa have caused a decrease in costs and an increase in internet access speed. However, this technology is not available to those in rural areas.

Heavy Mobile Subscription Increase

The telecommunications industry has made sub-saharan Africa the fastest-developing mobile network market – with its well-established cellular towers across the continent.

It was reported by ABI Research that, at the end of 2012, 2G mobile subscriptions contributed to 62.7% of all mobile subscriptions in Africa. 3G accounted for 11% of the market; and other carriers including MTN Nigeria and Vodacom were most dominant.

The US-based company, Bello, said that the necessary infrastructure for internet access through mobile phones may be established, but cellular network data is still very expensive and has unreliable connections – particularly in times of blackouts.

‘Furthermore, entrepreneurs have brought up the issue that the use of 3G mobile protocol in applications and software is limited.

Librii founder, David Dewane, said that “broadband is essential to the modern web,” and that “we are sort of obsessed with the highest possible speed… and the high-powered computational tools. You simply can’t do that on a 3G network.”

Both Bello and Dewane are aiming to transfer those who rely on cellular networks for internet access, specifically those in rural areas, to more reliable and stable high-speed internet.

Home-Grown Plans

Bello has said that African entrepreneurs cannot afford to wait for the technology and infrastructure to arrive, and that they need to take advantage of the enormous potential that BRCK and other similar devices used to enhance the network possess.

The World Bank released a report in 2012 that focused on home-grown technology centres in Africa that have gone out into the continent and gained access to cheap online access or supported others who are doing it.

Even large-scale companies such as Google and Microsoft have been encouraging better internet accessibility across Africa.

Google has an initiative called Project Loon that entails the launching of solar-powered, high-altitude balloons to the border of space in order to increase internet access.

Microsoft took it a step further with their $70 million 4Afrika initiative, in which one of the projects involve the use of TV white spaces, as well as solar-powered base stations to provide rural areas with low-cost wireless broadband access.

Both Entrepreneurs and researchers have said that the issues with power and other requirements of the content will potentially become an obstruction to the functioning of these new home-grown efforts. However, there happens to be healthy competition and a symbiotic relationship that exists between the backbone cable links, the mobile phone network and the wireless broadband that can be used to combat the issues, according to Cottrell.

Cottrell also says that, “There’s no doubt that, for many years to come, wide connections, and fibre-optic connections will continue to be necessary,” he said. “But the distribution mechanisms on the site… that may change. No longer may one have to wire every building with copper cables to every desktop. As for who wins [between cellular networks and wireless broadband], I would hesitate to try and make a guess to what happens. They both have their place.”

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