Despite tremendous strides in the last decade, that saw the commissioning of several undersea cables and growth in terrestrial fiber, Africa continues to lag behind in the number of active Internet connections. According to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), only 16% of the population in Africa had an Internet connection by the end of 2013. This is extremely low when compared to Europe (75%) , The Americas (61%), The Arab States (38%) and Asia (32%). The image below is a visual representation of an online "census" taken in 2012. Take notice how "dark" Africa looks.
But, what's the big deal with not having a connection to the Internet? Well, as mentioned in our digital divide article
, there is compelling evidence that more connectivity has a direct impact on a country's GDP. There are rich possibilities that come with access to the Internet, such as; ecommerce, international trade opportunities, free access to information that improves the quality of life, greater democratic awareness hence better governance, telecommuting to overseas jobs, access to online education and much more.
In the past, we have examined some of projects being undertaken by governments to increase Internet access such as encouraging the private sector to invest in terrestrial fiber
. However, there are other private initiatives that are expected to have a significant impact on the growth of Internet connectivity in Africa.
Wired Magazine, in a recent article, referred to Internet.org as "Facebook’s plan to conquer the world with crappy phones and bad networks." This assessment is based on two observations; Internet.org's initiative to convince telecom companies to provide people in Africa with affordable Internet enabled phones and, Facebook's work with apps targeted at low-end phones; these apps avoid hogging data (the cost of which is a barrier to Internet use) by offloading all the processing functions to Facebook's servers on the back end, and only delivering images or text on-demand. While this may appear as encouraging the use "crappy phones", there is no escaping the fact that the main goal, increasing Internet access, is met.
Facebook is also working on an ambitious project to harness satellite, drone and other technology to beam Internet connectivity to the developing world.
Other Internet.org initiatives in Africa include SocialEDU, an education program in Rwanda whose goal is to provide MOOCs (massive open online courses) comprising high quality localized content accessible via mobile devices. Internet.org has also sponsored several studies on the impact of Internet access on the macro economy of developing countries.
Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI)
The Alliance for Affordable Internet is the brainchild of Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Internet. Launched in 2013, the initiative is an alliance of tech giants Microsoft, Google, Intel, Yahoo, Facebook and others. Their objective is to increase Internet access by promoting programs and policies that lower the cost of bandwidth. There is evidence that liberalization of the telecoms industry can lead to exponential growth of Internet users; this was certainly the case in Kenya. The group is looking to replicate Kenya's success in other African markets. In-country engagements are currently ongoing with four countries and there are plans to expand that to at least twelve by the end of 2015.
Google Low Earth Orbiting Satellites
Finally, any discussion about initiatives to increase Internet uptake in Africa would be incomplete without mentioning Google's planned investment in 180 satellites. Google has decided to use a portion of its massive cash reserves to bring faster, cheaper and accessible Internet to the developing world. A planned investment of $1 billion is in the works where Google will deploy an army of 180 low earth orbiting satellites. This will aid areas where there are few ISPs or where Internet connectivity is state-controlled such as in Ethiopia.
These private initiatives will prove to be a real game changer before the end of the decade.