African Infrastructure Opportunities

A NY Times article last month points out a crisis of planetary proportions whose implications are staggering. Highlights are mine.

A lack of infrastructure is the biggest problem. In many countries, communications networks were destroyed during years of civil conflict, and continuing political instability deters governments or companies from investing in new systems. E-mail messages and phone calls sent from some African countries have to be routed through Britain, or even the United States, increasing expenses and delivery times. About 75 percent of African Internet traffic is routed this way and costs African countries billions of extra dollars each year that they would not incur if their infrastructure was up to speed.“Most African governments haven’t paid much attention to their infrastructure,” said Vincent Oria, an associate professor of computer science at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and a native of the Ivory Coast. “In places where hunger, AIDS and poverty are rampant, they didn’t see it as critical until now.”

Africa’s only connection to the network of computers and fiber optic cables that are the Internet’s backbone is a $600 million undersea cable running from Portugal down the west coast of Africa. Built in 2002, the cable was supposed to provide cheaper and faster Web access, but so far that has not happened.

Prices remain high because the national telecommunications linked to the cable maintain a monopoly over access, squeezing out potential competitors. And plans for a fiber optic cable along the East African coast have stalled over similar access issues. Most countries in Eastern Africa, like Rwanda, depend on slower satellite technology for Internet service.

The result is that Africa remains the least connected region in the world, and the digital gap between it and the developed world is widening rapidly. “Unless you can offer Internet access that is the same as the rest of the world, Africa can’t be part of the global economy or academic environment,” said Lawrence H. Landweber, professor emeritus of computer science at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, who was also part of an early effort to bring the Web to Africa in the mid-1990s. “The benefits of the Internet age will bypass the continent.

Africa, Offline: Waiting for the Web – New York Times

Can the planet afford to have an entire continent left out of the meshverse? Considering that it’s the birthplace of humanity and still home to vast human and material resources leaving it out would be like leaving out a major organ. Making significant progress in addressing this crisis could have tremendous upside. While it is not inherently a technological problem, innovative uses of technology could make a big difference.

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