ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (Reuters) -- It may take all day to phone Ghana from the country next door, but if you want the latest news from a shadowy group of rebels fighting in remote West African jungles, you can always go to their website.
Small ads, chat rooms, government propaganda, dissident tracts, soccer scores, news, horoscopes, lonely hearts, pornography and racist rants -- Africa's websites have it all.
And Ghana in west Africa is playing host this week to a showdown among the global gatekeepers of the Internet -- the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN.
At one the plushest hotels in one of the world's poorest countries, the nonprofit body that oversees the use of the global computer network has to decide who should run the Net.
But for many in Africa, the cyberwar taking place by Ghana's palm-fringed beaches is far removed from their daily grind. Many African nations are struggling to develop stable political systems and falling ever further behind Western economies.
Although the Internet faces a host of obstacles getting a foothold in the world's poorest continent, more and more people are logging on in Africa. In 1995 there were 1.2 Internet hosts in South Africa for every 1,000 people. Five years later there were 8.4.
Cybercafes are sprouting like mushrooms in cities and Internet service providers proliferate. In Kenya, 40 ISPs serve a modest 40,000 Internet users and you can get hooked up in hours in Ivory Coast.
But despite the leaps made in the last few years, only a tiny proportion of the more than 800 million people in Africa have access to the Internet.
A study by research group NUA Internet Surveys put Internet users worldwide at 513 million. But just four million were in Africa, and more than half of them in one country, South Africa.
And there is a long way to go. The bottom 28 countries in the United Nations human development league, which ranks 162 countries, are all in Africa and the highest score among them is 0.2 hosts for every 1,000 people in Senegal and Zambia.
The continent's highest proportion of Internet users is in the Seychelles with 7.6 percent, or 6,000 users. In Seattle, home of software behemoth Microsoft, 60 percent of the population have home access to the Internet.
Wired magazine has identified 46 "technology hubs" in the world -- places where know-how, finance and opportunity converge -- based on numbers of corporate offices, venture capitalists, business startups, universities and research labs.
Africa had two: El Ghazala in Tunisia and Gauteng in South Africa, ranked 45 and 46 respectively.
The Internet has failed to take off in Africa for simple reasons. Electricity and phone service are absent from large swatches of the continent.
Even in capital cities such as Accra in Ghana, where the Internet is a handy way of bypassing the country's poor international phone service, power cuts hamper computer use.
Oliver Fortuin, head of IBM's PC division in South and Central Africa, said one of the biggest obstacles to IT growth -- except in South Africa -- was limited telecoms infrastructure.
The poorest continent on the planet has just two percent of the globe's telephone lines and for many, access to clean water, healthcare or education would top any wish list.
"Africa can't leapfrog the technology because it doesn't have the capital required to invest in the infrastructure," he said. "Africa is three to four years behind the technology curve in terms of infrastructure, as the start-up costs are high."
The African Development Bank highlighted information and communications technology as a key infrastructure -- along with water, energy and transport -- desperately in need of private sector funding to help Africa develop.
Optimists argue that Africa's tardy development provides opportunities to learn from the mistakes of the West and to use new innovations to kick-start development.
The Internet provides a huge amount of health and education information, key areas for Africa. For example, remote Internet centers have been set up at refugee camps in Tanzania to provide long-distance health and education advice to those fleeing from Burundi.
But few should expect home Internet use to take off anytime soon. The technology costs too much.
In Ivory Coast, one of the more affluent countries in West Africa, a decent computer costs about $1,000, well above the annual per capita income. The minimum monthly wage is $40.
IBM says its revenue base in West Africa has doubled in each of the last three years, but most clients are multinationals and fears of political instability continue to crimp investment.
"We're not going to see big growth in pervasive computing, where everything is connected, in the next 18 months in Africa," Fortuin said.
- 192 Technology & Telecommunications