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Connected Life Exchange

By Howard Baldwin, Contributing Columnist

In part one of this story, we looked at the strategic and tactical goals of Connect Africa, a group founded in 2007 intending to “bridge major gaps in information and communication technology across the region” by 2015.

In part 2, we look at its progress at the halfway point.

Connect Africa’s eleven flagship projects represent an ambitious stride toward bringing parity to the continent in relation with the rest of the world when it comes to interconnection and education.

For instance, among the interconnection initiatives, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) broadband initiative was highly praised, and cited as a priority. The project “would reduce [the] cost of transactions and therefore make Africa competitive. It would also provide a platform on which Africa could develop applications [and] make content available to the rest of the world.”

At the same time, the Connect Africa representatives discussed an initiative focused on setting up Internet exchange providers (IXPs) as part of an African Internet Exchange Program (AXIS). The representatives determined that such developments needed to accommodate the input of African ISPs, government regulators, and other participants, and suggested revising the initiative once that information was gathered.

On the education side, another project deemed a priority was the NEPAD e-school initiative, focused on improving education and increasing access to knowledge through ICT. Other education projects discussed included a long-distance learning initiative; an e-learning network spanning the entire continent; and an ICT-based professional development program. All of these have the noble goal of bringing education and connectivity to an underserved population.

The 2007 conference was able to launch these projects with considerable optimism about its progress up to that point. For instance, according to data from the International Telecommunications Union (a sponsor of Connect Africa), between 2000 and 2005, investment in ICT infrastructure in Africa had gone from US$3.5 billion to US$8 billion.

The ITU noted, “These figures reflect an increasingly vibrant private sector investment environment, especially in mobile telephony, which has been stimulated by competition and policy and regulatory reform in most African telecommunication markets.”

Building an ICT Infrastructure Foundation in Africa

But how much progress have these projects made? Connect Africa’s goal was to have made significant progress by 2015. We’re almost to the halfway point, and the latest reports from the ITU may seem less than encouraging.

For instance, in Africa, some 41% of the population has a mobile phone, versus 76% globally. Only 9.6% of the population has Internet access, versus 30% globally. And broadband penetration continent-wide remains at 1%.

That may sound like Connect Africa isn’t getting much traction. However, let’s apply some context to these figures, acknowledging that Africa comprises some 54 countries, all of which have to agree on connectivity standards and governmental regulations. Let’s look at the same statistics for another country:

2000-2001 2009-2010
Wireless Penetration 34% 93%
Internet Access 44% 77.3%
Broadband Adoption 9% 63.5%

.

Those figures represent a significant leap forward over the last decade. That country? The United States, one of the richest in the world. (The figures are from, respectively, the CTIA, the ITU, and the U.S. Department of Commerce.) Given Africa’s starting point, it arguably has a long way to go, but in time, it may very well exhibit the same kind of growth spurts in its ICT capabilities.

The ICT infrastructure that’s being built today will provide a foundation for future economic growth and increased prosperity in the region. Local telecom service providers will likely be instrumental in both the planning and execution of achieving the remaining project objectives.

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