AFRICA: The Great Internet Robbery

The Continent Loses $500 Million a Year by Connecting to the Internet

Africa is being ripped off -- to the tune of some $500m a year -- simply for hooking up to the World Wide Web, say Kenyan internet company chiefs.

And this extra cost is partly to blame for slowing the spread of the internet in Africa and helping sustain the digital divide, they contend.

According to Kenya's Internet Service Providers (ISP) Association, the continent is being forced by Western companies to pay the full cost of connecting to worldwide networks.

Chairman Richard Bell says this has led to the unfair exploitation of the continent's young internet industry.

He says the problem is that International Telecommunications Union regulations -- which ensures the costs of telephone calls between Africa and the West are split 50:50 -- are not being enforced with regard to the internet.

"British Telecom doesn't spend one single penny... America Online doesn't spend one single cent in sending emails to Africa."

The total cost of any email sent or received by an African internet user is borne entirely by African ISPs, Mr Bell said on the BBC African service programme Talkabout Africa.

Despite the relatively high cost of using the internet in Africa, growth has been rapid in recent years.

All 54 countries are now hooked up to the internet, and there an estimated four million subscribers across the continent.

In Kenya alone, there are more than 100,000 subscribers and some 250 cyber cafes across the country.



Bandwidth

Mr Bell said that their association had calculated that the current and latent demand for bandwidth in Africa cost about $1bn per year.

And he said that if data network operators in the West were forced to adhere to the same regulations as voice operators then they would have to pay half the cost.

"The only reason this doesn't happen at the moment is that European and North American operators are not prepared to pay their share of the costs."

"This is exploitation... These networks are raping Africa of half a billion dollars a year."

He said that the G8 group of leading nations were responsible for this inequitable trade and at some point had to act to halt it, if they were serious about trying to bridge the digital divide.

And he said that they as an association now planned to push for this change.



Action

They are also calling on African countries to take action by getting together to reduce their costs.

A proposal called the Halfway Proposition urges fellow African countries to create national exchanges and then interconnected regional ones -- as has occured in other parts of the developing world.

This would at least mean that the communications costs for intra-African emails stay within Africa -- rather than the West benefiting from the cost of an email.

Mike Jenson, who runs the Africa Interconnectivity web site and is surveying the current utilisation of broadband on the continent, agrees that this could make a difference.

"No one really knows how much intra-African traffic there is, but it's sure to grow and become significant if it isn't already," he told BBC News Online.

"If only 5% is intra-regional, it would add up to a sizeable amount," he said.

AMP Section Name:Technology & Telecommunications
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