ICTs in Africa: Digital Divide to Digital Opportunity

The contribution that communications play in the development process has been clearly demonstrated. Improving access to ICTs has significant socio-economic implications which is why improved connectivity to close the gap between the haves and have-nots is such an important step towards meeting the Millennium Development Goals. ICTs and their contribution to areas such as distance learning, telemedicine, and e-governance result in healthier, more literate populations better positioned to actively participate and advance national economies. ITU is committed to transforming the digital divide into a digital opportunity for all.Developments for the ICT Sector in AfricaOne of the biggest developments in expanding access to information and communication technologies (ICT) in Africa involves communications infrastructure. The lack of basic infrastructure is historical in the region with the percentage of fixed telephone lines being the lowest worldwide with an average of 4 main lines for 100 people. This in turn constrains the deployment of broadband access via ADSL, which is the main method of fixed broadband access in most countries across the world. Annual mobile growth rates of over 48 per cent over the last five years further lend to Africa being dubbed “the least wired region in the world”. Despite the overall low level of broadband penetration, double and triple-play services similar to other regions are beginning to emerge. Current data and trends suggest that Africa has immense potential to improve its infrastructure deployment and telecommunications usage.Connectivity in Africa illustrates the global digital divide. Disparities also exist within the African region. For example, Egypt has 3 times the fixed line penetration of Nigeria and three quarters of the continent’s fixed lines are found in just 6 of the continent’s 53 countries. Improving physical access is just one step in connecting the unconnected. Further challenges involve adopting and harmonizing appropriate public policies and regulatory frameworks; both are imperative in creating an enabling environment and making ICTs more accessible. As wealth distribution and social services can be strikingly skewed, access needs to be affordable for ordinary Africans. In most African countries, broadband prices remain very high compared to income levels and the average price of an entry-level monthly broadband subscription is over USD 100, exceeding average per capita income. Morocco and Senegal have more attractive prices at USD 18 and USD 40 respectively, lending to broadband popularity. For investors, this represents a segmented market attractive to any business strategy.Connecting the UnconnectedMany African governments have prioritized ICTs in their national agendas, appreciating the great impetus and contribution that communications play in the development process. These commitments together with those of other stakeholders are in parallel with ITU’s comprehensive strategy to bridging the digital divide. ITU’s leadership of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) is one aspect of this strategy. Another is the Connect Africa initiative. In October 2007, African leaders and industry heads as well as CEOs of leading ICT companies from around the world met at the Connect Africa Summit in Kigali, Rwanda to mobilize human, financial and technical resources and bring new investment commitments aimed at bridging ICT infrastructure gaps. The initiative sought to advance ICT investment, which in turn boosts investment across the economy and fuels economic growth and employment. Ensuing commitments to the tune of USD 55 billion are a significant step forward. Broadband access in particular will increase competitiveness in all industry sectors in Africa and help improve services across the development spectrum. Broadband is not just about the Internet. It is also about the convergence of communication applications that incorporate multiple data formats of text, sound, and video. The bundling of TV, Internet and phone services allows for radical cost efficiencies, which in turn can be used to introduce new services in previously underserved communities.Advancements in regulatory and policy frameworks are also being addressed with innovative public-private partnerships that seek accessible end-user equipment and service for all. Broadband is an enabling mechanism to reach connectivity targets and the delivery of ICT applications, especially in key areas of education, health care, trade and governance, and promises to open up new markets and competitiveness in all industry sectors in Africa. With financial commitments and innovative partnerships, African operators are now forging ahead with deployment of next-generation technologies including third-generation (3G) telephony, broadband Internet, and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). Africa indeed is a most enticing market for ICT!Find Out More At AFRICA 2008Much is being advanced in terms of infrastructural developments in Africa, and much still remains to be done. Affordable and equitable access remains critical for economic empowerment and attracting foreign direct investment. ITU TELECOM AFRICA 2008 is the global networking platform that brings together stakeholders at the highest level. Products and services from around the world are marketed to meet the needs of the regions’ various markets. Trade is facilitated and expedited as partnerships are solidified and negotiations sealed.At ITU TELECOM AFRICA 2008, be sure to visit the ITU Stand located in Hall 1 beside the VIP Lounge, and view a demonstration of ITU Global View as part of the Connect Africa portal. In the Forum environment, consider the plenary sessions on Tuesday morning, 13 May that looks at the Policy agenda for Africa. The first session revisits “The WSIS Commitments: Where do we Stand Now?” followed by the special session on the follow-up to the Connect Africa Summit “From Kigali to Tomorrow.” Also at ITU TELECOM AFRICA 2008, the 8th edition of the African Telecommunication/ICT Indicators will be presented at the Opening Press Conference at 13:00 on 11 May. This report will also be available for purchase from the ITU Stand in Hall 1.Key Facts: Africa…

  • has some 280 million total telephone subscribers, of which some 260 million (over 85%) are mobile cellular subscribers, representing the continent with the highest ratio of mobile to total telephone subscribers of any region in the world.
  • is the region with the highest mobile cellular growth rate. Growth over the past 5 years averages almost 65% year on year.
  • accounts for 14% of the world’s population, but for only around 7% of all fixed and mobile subscribers worldwide.
  • has some 50 million Internet users, for an Internet penetration of just 5%. Europe’s Internet penetration is 8 times higher.
  • has a broadband penetration of more than 1% in only a few countries. Broadband penetration in OECD countries exceeds 18%.

A graph of the key statisitcs is available at www.itu.int/newsroom/features/images/subscribers_2006.jpg.(ITU World Telecommunication/ICT Indicators, 2007)Internet Subscribers 2006Africa is the second most populated region in the world with 963 million inhabitants. The low fixed, mobile and broadband penetration rates represent real digital opportunity in Africa, both for those already in the region, and those that have not yet secured a foothold.Africa Advances With Wireless TechnologyAfrica’s greatest success story to date in telecommunications is the remarkable spread of mobile telephony. Africa’s mobile market has been the fastest-growing of any region over the last five years and has grown twice as fast as the global market. It has been a significant contributor to expanding access opportunities to a vast majority of its population. Mobile phones account for close to 90% of all telephone subscribers in Africa, with over 260 million mobile cellular subscribers in 2007.This success coupled with the technological advances of broadband and demand for ever-increasing bandwidth significantly justifies migrating to an all wireless infrastructure. New technologies such as WiMAX enables delivery of last mile wireless broadband as an alternative to cable and DSL. WiMAX is gaining momentum across the continent and is likely to get an additional boost from its adoption as a third-generation technology in October 2007. Wireless technology holds particular potential for remote and hard to reach areas that are hindered by reliable sources of electricity. As such, the uptake of wireless involves significant innovation in adapting to the African reality. Contemporary technologies contemplate power sources such as wind and solar. In Africa the wireless portion of the network extends much further than the last mile, rendering the region as one part of the world where wireless technology is the primary delivery system for internet services.The term digital divide came into use in the mid 1990s addressing the troubling disparities in terms of access to information technology. Originally coined with respect to computer access, the advent of technology has seen the term evolve in reference to Internet access, broadband access, and more recently, access to the full spectrum of information and communication technologies.This announcement from the ITU was sourced from www.itu.int/newsroom/features/ict_africa.html.

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