In South Africa, some private Internet users are currently paying about $60 a month for relatively slow, limited access to the web, in contrast with consumers in America, who pay as little as $20 per month for unlimited, high speed connectivity. This is just one example of the inflated prices Africans have been paying for low quality connectivity to the web.
Another example can be found in the prices paid by businesses in East Africa. Until recently, limited, slow satellite Internet access cost them about $3,000 a month. But shortly after the launch of the SEACOM cable, the cost of improved connectivity dropped to about $600 a month.
“This (cable) represents a massive opportunity for Africa,” says Toby Shapshak, the editor of the South African edition of Stuff magazine, an international publication focusing on Internet developments.
He maintains that when “competition kicks in,” African Internet Service Providers (ISPs) will pass the lower costs on to Internet cafes and private consumers, giving millions more Africans access to high speed Internet, and a “whole new world.”
“Africa still has problems with illiteracy and no electricity in much of the continent, but I’m still very optimistic about the potential of this development,” says Shapshak.
The high cost and slow speed of the Internet in southern and eastern Africa have hindered development across the continent the editor says.
“I can’t tell you how often I have to show people YouTube for the first time on a cell phone. They’ve never seen it before. That is what is so exciting for them (about the SEACOM cable) – that all of a sudden, if you want to watch YouTube, you just click on it and there it goes!”
Shapshak says the implications for trade in Africa are “amazing.” Corporations on the continent, for example, will be able to generate large amounts of data to share between offices around the world. It’ll be possible for them to download information such as videos and photographs that could prove essential to the successful operation of their businesses, and to communicate effectively with overseas clients using Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services, video links and so on.
Up until now, modern Internet communication methods such as these have mostly been unavailable to African enterprises, greatly retarding their progress.
Social networking ‘explosion’
Shapshak says Africa is now on the cusp of an “explosion” with regard to use of social networking Internet sites and services such as MySpace, Facebook, Twitter and the immensely popular video sharing website, YouTube.
“SEACOM has come at just the right time” to allow Africa to participate in this “revolution in terms of how human beings communicate with each another,” he says.
Shapshak points out that such sites are the “cheapest and most effective ways of reaching large groups of people.” African NGOs, for example, can use them to lobby for funds.
“Africans want to chat, they want to talk on these sites,” he says.
He adds that Africans are “burning” for the knowledge available through the Internet. “Because of SEACOM, they’re going to access (Internet encyclopedia) Wikipedia for the first time…. When you’ve never had access to an encyclopedia, can you imagine how much people are going to learn? It’s astounding.”
Art and music
Africa is rich in talent, but the lack of good access to the Internet has meant that artists and musicians largely remain invisible to the international community. Faster web connectivity could change this, Shapshak says.
“Suddenly the possibility exists for many African musicians to get to MySpace and to upload their content for the world to see. In the future, we’re going to see more international African superstars…. Great unknown African bands will be discovered.”
Shapshak provides the example of singer Tia Kito, the only South African on the internationally distributed Café Del Mar range of CDs. Kito was discovered through Facebook – a service she initially only had access to because she lived in Italy, which has broadband.
The editor foresees that faster, cheaper Internet is also going to lead many Africans to become “citizen journalists.”
“There’s a lot happening in Africa, and the media’s not always there to cover it…. It’s going to happen like the (underground train) attacks in London (in 2005), when witnesses transmitted video and photographs (via Internet-connected cell phones) to international news outlets, and citizen journalism really came of age.”
It’s already happening in South Africa, says Shapshak, where a newspaper recently ran a front page story of a plane crash rescue using pictures taken by a witness with a cell phone.
“This amazing news event happened. This is real life at its very best, this is heroism; this is pulling people from a burning plane. And without something like Twitter, the world would never have known…. Thousands of people saw these incredible photographs online.”
Shapshak says the SEACOM cable could make it possible for doctors in rural, isolated areas of Africa, in cooperation with doctors in other parts of the world, to diagnose illnesses using web cameras and other technology.
“Tele-medicine’s a really great concept…. There have been some very successful trials in South Africa. What the technician or the doctor in the rural area needs to do is take photographs, (body) temperatures, and whatever other diagnostic information that the remote specialist would need, and show them to the doctor (in another area)…in real time, via the Internet camera. Or the rural doctor can take the pictures, do the scans, input them, email them off, send them the X-rays. The specialist can look at it and send it back,” Shapshak explains.
He says this could save many African lives in the near future. “When specialist doctors who could be anywhere in the world can’t get to emergencies in Africa, but can have access to information transmitted to them by people in the emergency situation – and can therefore give the people in the field advice as to how to save the patient’s life – it’s very exciting.”
Breaking cultural boundaries
In Saudi Arabia, women are transcending traditional boundaries by using the Internet to communicate on-line with men. Shapshak sees the same “breaking of cultural and traditional restrictions” happening in Africa, as a result of broadband.
“People with a greater education are able to do more with their lives. And if you extrapolate that to a society, a more educated society is more tolerant,” he says. “I am a great believer that it is ignorance that causes problems in this world, not knowledge. Knowledge frees people. The more knowledge Africans get from the Internet for example, the more open-minded certain societies will become.”
According to Shapshak, increased Internet use in Africa has “great potential” to change societies for the better.
“Look at how Twitter has had such an impact in Iran,” he says.
During the recent political violence in Iran, anti-government protesters overcame state media censorship by using Twitter and other social media to organize demonstrations. Shapshak predicts the same will happen in Africa, as a result of the SEACOM initiative.
To a degree, he says, it’s already happened in Zimbabwe, where even with a weak Internet connection, people have been getting news about their own country from international websites, and not state-controlled media.
Cell phone innovation
Shapshak acknowledges that most Africans aren’t going to experience the “so-called Internet revolution” in the near future.
“People in Africa still live very far apart. No access to Internet cafes. They’ve never even seen a computer. There are still a lot of people who have no electricity.”
But he finds reason for optimism in the continent’s ever-expanding cell phone networks, increased mobile phone ownership and improved technology.
Then he adds, “Imagine if these kinds of people were given cheap and fast access to broadband through their phones. Imagine the advances in human development that could be possible…. The mobile web in Africa is the next big thing. That’s where all the great innovation is going to happen.”