- Internet Access in Africa:A Critical Review of Public Policy Issues
The Internet is, as of yet, an essentially insignificant medium in Africa with access limited to some 0.1 percent of the population. Although the number of host sites on the continent has increased rapidly in recent years, Africa, with a population of some 816 million, remains one of the least networked regions in the world with as many Internet hosts as a small Eastern European country. Africa's international bandwidth has more than doubled in the last year, but Internet growth has slowed as the bulk of users who can afford a computer and telephone have already obtained connections, and private oligopolies could supplant public monopolies in the provision of service.1 Despite its fast growth in recent years, the International Telecommunications Union predicts that by 2005 the penetration rate for the Internet in sub-Saharan Africa will only have grown to 0.58 percent.2 Furthermore, access to the Internet remains principally confined to the capital cities and large urban areas. Thus, the rural population, which comprises the vast majority of Africans, has not benefited from the deployment of new communication technologies. Despite the fact that the Internet offers a variety of opportunities and e-mail is a far cheaper form of international communication than voice or facsimile, there are several different, though related, issues that must be addressed to increase network accessibility to the majority of Africans.
Using the framework of structural constraints, this article assesses the development and growth of the Internet in African states by examining those obstacles that hinder the diffusion of the Internet. It thus outlines areas that must be addressed in the formulation of policies to facilitate networking and connectivity activities. The article also provides a critique of both telecommunications liberalization, which is advocated by multilateral and bilateral agencies to advance the use of the Internet in Africa, and the role of the Internet in facilitating sustainable development. While sharing the aim of promoting connectivity and information technology development in Africa, this article critically evaluates some of the policies that seek to achieve this goal.
A Continental Overview
At the end of 1996 only eleven of Africa's fifty-four countries had local Internet access, but by early 2000 all of the countries had secured access, at least in their capital cities. Not all states, though, have a 'host' computer, that is a computer with a permanent Internet connection.3 Of the twenty-two countries in the world with a population of more than one million that do not have an Internet host site, sixteen are in Africa: Burundi, Chad, the Central African Republic, Congo, Eritrea, Gambia, Guinea, Lesotho, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, and Zaire.4 Africa boasts twelve percent of the world's population, but only two percent of the world's telephones. Furthermore, these phone lines are unevenly distributed. Eighty percent of the lines are concentrated in just eight countries, and in some states teledensity rates are as low as one telephone line per 1,000 people.5 Due to such limited access to phone lines, networked computers are shared, but calculations of the actual number of users across the continent vary.
One report by the World Bank estimates eight people usually share a computer with an Internet or e-mail connection.6 A study by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa suggests that each networked computer supports an average of three users, and Jensen estimates that an Internet or e-mail connection generally supports a range of three to five users, with the current number of African Internet users at around 5 to 8 million, with about 1.5 to 2.5 million outside of North and South Africa.7 These figures thus assert that Africa averages one Internet user for every 250 to 400 people, which compares with a world average of one user for every fifteen people, and a North American and European average of one user for every two people.8
Regardless of which statistics are employed, it is evident that South Africa, which boasts points of presence in more than 100 cities and towns, accounts...