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Africa Improves Internet Links - 2002-08-20

Kenya has joined South Africa to become one of only two countries so far in Africa with a national internet exchange point, or IXP. It is a base where in-coming and out-going messages are handled -- which will help consumers access the internet more quickly and cheaply than they do today. Over a dozen other African countries are also planning to get involved.

Within a few years, 16 African countries are scheduled to have their own in-country “hook-ups” – or IXP exchange points -- to the internet. Uganda will be the next to come on line, next year. The new in-country connections to the web will cut the high price of accessing the internet from Africa today – by eliminating the price of long-distance calls to Europe where the connections are now handled. l

The decision to widen Africa’s access to the net was made at a recent Nairobi summit of the African Computing and Telecommunications and the East Africa Internet Forum. The move was backed by Great Britain and Canada. Other sponsors include the Berkman Center at Harvard University and the computer technology company called Cisco Systems.

The African Internet Service Providers Association, or AFRISPA, will install the actual IXPs.

Sean Morony is group chairman of Africa Information Technology, Exhibitions and Conferences, or AITEC. It was the main organizer of the Nairobi forum and a leader in the continent’s drive to modernize its telecommunications systems.

He says Africa is fast moving to improve its access to the internet: "Well, that’s an ongoing process. Kenya has established its internet exchange point and Uganda is working on one at the moment and in Ghana they are trying to develop one. So it’s an ongoing process, it’s difficult to predict how quickly those 16 exchange points will be achieved."

Mr Morony said the introduction of 16 new IXPs will wean Africa away from depending on European and North American companies for internet services. African internet service providers or ISPs and internet users are currently said to be paying more than double the fee in telecommunication services compared to their peers in the North. Mr Morony says in Kenya, the price of internet use has since gone down, a move which will allow more people to get access to the net and further lower costs.

The AITEC chief says information technology experts say if African countries open up their telephone technologies and internet services to various private investors, Africa can significantly reduce the cost of accessing the internet and having opening up the markets.

He says more players in the market will lead to competition, which eventually will force prices down. Mr Morony says the region likely to benefit the quickest is Eastern Africa. It is the focus of a project called Africa One that will link the area’s countries telephone and internet access through underwater fibre optic cables. The result should be a drop in costs for the consumer. Africa One is an initiative of the New Partnership for African Development — a pan African effort that links economic development to good governance and democracy. Mr Morony explains the importance of having the underwater links: "The significance is that it will provide a high bandwidth the continent needs and link up with existing cables into North America and reduce the expensive costs of satellite telecommunications which is really what this continent is having to use primarily especially in east Africa at the moment."

A similar fibre optic cable was installed in West Africa earlier this year with the support of the South African Telecommunications Company. But Mr. Morony says the project alone may not be enough to lower prices in West Africa. He called on the region’s governments to liberalize their telecommunication industries and establish frameworks to consult with the private sector in improving services.

Africa has the lowest internet access per person in the world -- with only one out of 200 people having access compared to the world average of one in 15. African internet service providers are saying that the continent is losing up to 500 million dollars per year in inflated internet connection charges.