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A Cellular revolution

 

In the developed world mobile telephony has simply expanded an existing service, but in Africa it is changing the face of a continent. A real and true technological revolution, caused by an exponential explosion of the number of users, which has now overtaken fixed line subscribers by ten fold: a mobile “infrastructure”, in many countries the only reliable communication system.

By Marco Cocchi

 

A research by the Zef Centre at Bonn University shows that in Africa 60% of the population has access to mobile telephony and that between the year 2000 and 2005 the number of users has surged from 8 million to over 100 million. A yearly increase trend of 107%, with 43 African states having more cell phones than fixed ones (in the continent only three lines are available for each 100 inhabitants).
According to the latest estimate by the International Communication Union (ITU), South Africa has experienced the biggest boom: in September 2006 a handsome 34 million mobile phones were ringing, against the 9 million of September 2001. But also other African countries are tailing the South African boom. In Botswana, for instance, one in three owns a mobile phone. Even the poorest countries, like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Malawi, have in the last ten years installed an impressive number of relay stations of mobile telephony for tens of thousands of customers.
The skyrocketing expansion of the number of cell phones in Africa had caught the attention of the American magazine Newsweek already six years ago. The article described at length how this boom had very different characteristics from the first diffusion of the mobile telephony in Africa back in the nineties: ”If at that time the spread of the mobile phone was induced by the inefficiency of the fixed lines and it concerned only small companies, today it can show a status of distinctiveness of its own, involving huge capitals”.
Mobile telephony in Africa is favoured by an undeniable fact: many countries are handicapped by an insufficient and unreliable fixed line network: telephone connections are easily interrupted, the cost of calls is too high, and maintenance is poor and badly managed. In many countries, wars have caused the destruction of telephone-lines infrastructures, thus giving the “wireless transmissions” a first welcome chance.
No doubt the cell phone has, for a number of years now, become the main instrument of communication and digital language. Very many own one and they all use it for various activities; from journalism to financial transactions, from health services to personal matters. Many areas of the continent, endemically devoid of telephone lines, have become the prime beneficiaries of the mobile arrival, thanks to which has ended the need for long and perilous journeys to obtain information.

Digital divide
The cell phone is certainly not a symbol of wealth, but an indispensable instrument for whoever intends to take up an activity and chooses, in the end, an independent work. Both business operators and the UN have a keen interest in this venture: the former in the hope of winning over new customers and gathering in new earnings from people not yet reached by the signal; the latter, because of a belief that this is the instrument that will guarantee development, by breaking down the digital divide, the technological gap that stands between the rich computerized societies and the so called underdeveloped countries. Among the many initiatives attempting to knock down this divide, in places particularly economically disadvantaged, stands out a UN programme, the Millennium villages, which aims to extend the mobile network to regions considered by the telephone societies of no importance, because of an unlikely adequate return of cash. The initiative, in collaboration with the Columbia University’s Earth Institute, was devised at Sauri, in Kenya, in 2004 with the aim of providing mobile networks to 79 villages in Mali, Uganda, Senegal and Ethiopia. It is believed that the scheme would considerably improve the standard of living of the populations of these areas, where far too often even the most basic commodities, such as drinking water and electricity, are lacking.
It is now proven beyond doubt that the use of mobile communication is a powerful hauler of economic growth, especially in remote areas, where the availability of communication becomes vital. According to the London Business School, an expansion of mobile transmission of 10% can generate an annual growth of a country by 0.6%, in view of the fact that in many developing countries mobile telephony is the only available infrastructure apt at improving productivity.

Internet’s high costs
Another noteworthy data is furnished by ITU: a research by this Institute, last August, has revealed that investments in the field of telecommunications in Africa in 2006 have topped 8 billion dollars, against 3.5 billion in 2003: of these the largest amount was spent on mobile telephony, whose number of subscribers increased five-fold during this period. Much instead remains to be done, as compared with the rest of the world, for the coverage of Internet.
In 2006, only 4% of Africans had access to the Web, against 9.5% of the developing countries and 50% of the industrialized ones. In addition, it must be mentioned that 70% of the Internet traffic in Africa passes through centres based in other continents and then back to Africa, causing an enormous increase in costs for the local cyber-navigators (in more than half of the 53 African states the annual access to Internet still exceeds the pro-capital internal product).
It will suffice to consider that in the USA, Internet users pay an average of 20 dollars monthly for a gigabyte of data, while in Africa the same amount would cost an appalling 1,800 dollars. The fact that an average African pays 90 times more than an average American is due to the great insufficiency of available lines. The only underwater optic-fibre cable connecting most African countries with the rest of the world is the most costly one in the world, and makes the bandwidth in the continent so very expensive. Moreover the high cost of erecting the infrastructures makes the use of the line, whether vocal or written, very dear. Modern mobile and wireless technologies could provide access to the wide-band Internet, thus by-passing the necessity of expensive fixed infrastructures. Yet, to date, only 1% of Africans can make use of a wide-band connection. It is clear that the methodologies of approach to the Net in the continent must be changed and the access to its services revised. We must, however, acknowledge that Africa, in 2006, has registered over one million Internet navigators: a record increase, if we consider that the connections to the Net have not kept pace with the rest of the world. Some countries, among which Ivory Coast, Morocco, Senegal, Sudan and Tanzania, have increased three-fold the access to Internet in the last few years. Also the statistics published annually by Research & Markers confirm the slow but continuous progress in Africa, where, because of the scarcity of computers and telephone land lines, the great majority of users patronize cybercafés, kiosks, telephone centres, schools, etc., all public facilities.
It is also to be mentioned that in Africa, more than elsewhere, Internet is first and foremost e-mail, much sought after in a continent largely open to the world, with impressive international telephone traffic (though not inter-African). The deficiencies in the telephone grid and the narrowness of the band available make the other opportunities of access to the international Network scantier. Thanks to opportune mediators, traders and entrepreneurs, even if they belong to the immense informal sector and do not speak French or English, they are beginning to use the Internet to communicate with suppliers in Europe, America and Asia, thus cutting cuts down the need for travelling.
The African Regional Organization of Communications via satellite (Rascom), which covers 45 countries, has recently received a grant of over 36 million Euros from the African Bank for Development. Last July the Intergovernmental Organization launched a satellite system able to offer communication services (international phone calls, Internet connections and radio and TV receptions) across the whole continent at more accessible costs. The system will provide farmers, among other things, with more updated information on market trends and timely meteorological forecasts.

The Panafrican e-network
It is again of last July the communiqué that India will help Africa overcome the digital divide through a linkage between African schools and hospitals and the main Indian institutes. Disclosed by the Indian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Pranab Mukherjee, during his recent visit to Ethiopia, the panafrican e-network (as it is called) would give New Delhi access to almost all the continent. Through tele-medicine and teaching from a distance, Indians would offer Africans, at low cost, their knowledge in these two sectors, so vital for the life and the welfare of the people.
The first pilot projects have been realized in Ethiopia together with the commitment of bilateral co-operation on important initiatives concerning technical collaboration, development of human resources and commerce. The other Asian superpower, China, has been watching with keen interest the Indian manoeuvres. Last May 14th, she launched a satellite for Nigeria’s telecommunications. It was the first time – notes the Chinese press agency Xinhua – that a foreign purchaser bought from China both a satellite and its launching.
Also, at the beginning of September, Telkom SA, a South African operator, confirmed that negotiations were going on with Vodafone: the crux of the matter under consideration was obviously the operator Vodacom, with 50% of its shares owned by Telkom SA and 50% by Vodafone. According to a Financial Times anticipation, Vodafone’s offer would amount to ten billion dollars. Vodacom is the main mobile operator in South Africa and is present also in Tanzania, Lesotho, Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo. But at the negotiating table sits also a third contender: MTN, a primary mobile operator in southern Africa and Vodacom’s competitor, which has extended its activity to other African countries and the Middle East. Also the world mobile telephony top corporation, the GSM Association (GSMA), has great projects up its sleeve. At a conference on the future of telecommunications in Africa (Kigali, Rwanda, 29-30 October 2007), the International Mobile Operators Association has announced a proposed 50 billion dollars’ worth of investments to bring mobile telephony to 90% of the sub-Saharan populations within the next five years. Thanks to the new technologies, the initiative, primarily intended for the mobile telephony, will also allow access to Internet with the mobile phone. GSMA has asked to reserve the frequencies from 750 to 862 megahertz to Africa, Middle East and Europe, because through them radio waves can go distances longer than the average.
In spite of all this feverish efforts, we cannot forget that the majority of Africans still cannot afford a private telephone line and so they solicit a new “Marshal Plan” to overcome the long delay in the communication field. This was the wish and hope expressed by Hamadoun Touré of Mali, the Secretary General of the International Union of Telecommunications (UIT), introducing the initiative “To connect Africa”, officially launched in the two days’ meeting at Kigali. Touré is of the opinion that only an international effort, similar to the plan conceived by the American statesman to lift the European economy after the Second World War, would enable Africa to come out of the long impasse in the field of communications.
No doubt, years will pass before the inhabitants of certain remote poor villages may be empowered to navigate on the Web, first for the high cost of the telephone and then for the lack of infrastructures. Yet even the most sceptical ones, like Touré, believe that soon or later the dream will come true.

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