East African Internet expansion25 Jul 2009
(East) Africa just had their global Internet connectivity significantly expanded. Education applications are presently limited to the tertiary sector. However, the promise of growth in Kenya and Tanzania particularly is significant as costs fall. Initially ISPs in this region have gone for higher bandwidth over cost reduction. That said, if Internet access developments follow models established already in China and India, conventional ISPs aren’t going to deliver growth, mobile providers will.
Accordingly, the improved bandwidth situation at the present prohibitively expensive costs of ~$600/month for a good link is ultimately a bit irrelevant if mobile tech delivers last-mile infrastructure and the mobile web enables e-commerce, social media participation, governance, healthcare and more. This isn’t a case for existing ISPs to drop prices: they’ve definitely got a very good business case for leaving prices up but using the link to improve value while this is still a valuable commodity. The only significant short-term challenge to this comes, potentially, in the form of any government policy implemented. They might do well to intervene here and stimulate economic development by promoting global connectivity… but I suspect the interests of established business and government, if they resemble anything like those in Australia, coincide too significantly for such bold maneuvers to ever come to fruition!
From a business standpoint, it makes sense to capture these markets with medium bandwidth technologies early. That said, the relatively limited capacity of this additional global link makes co-location essential for any serious engagement. What this represents is an important in-road for low-outlay development of new markets with significant parallels to existing products (i.e. to English-speaking populations without need for additional infrastructure).
For East Africans, however, this is much bigger. Internet connectivity enables exports of innovative solutions, and, as social media uptake improves, of localised (l10n)/internationalised (i18n) solutions in response to this newly-visible Internet market segment. The problem of ghettoisation along language lines is not so prominent perhaps as a result of significant Anglophone influence — Francophone Africa will, of course, engage in different networks because of language barriers. Yet some services, Twitter perhaps eminent among them, have irrationally succeeded independently of ‘native’ language (it remains at present offered only in English and Japanese, despite significant Chinese membership, and, who can forget, Iranian political application!) — while others (Facebook, to pick a similar example) have languished and been replaced by clones despite their linguistic plurality (26 unique languages last I recall hearing a count, including English (Pirate) and many more serious ones) — Xiaonei being but one example of this.
If language is not an issue, it is possible other disparities will become divisive in the same way. Developmental barriers in terms of software industry (a key driver of domestic web innovation) and global trading partners will steer usage in any number of particular directions. For example, China’s inept attempts at achieving independence from Microsoft software in the last decade have been effectively squashed by their rampant piracy situation. Parts of eastern Africa engage in literal acts of piracy, but it’s probably not indicative of an attitude towards or developed industry against protection of intellectual property. If the criminal distribution network doesn’t yet exist, and software adoption is insufficiently mature, it’s entirely possible that open source could win. This is naive, and based on the presumption that Africa has, to date, existed in a vacuum — but if we consider for a moment a day working on a computer without Internet connectivity, something of the radical difference between minimal connectivity and full-on broadband enabled connectivity begins to sink in.
One Australian commentator recently observed, in response to a dramatic increase in average per-capita bandwidth consumption/annum, that there are a number of “tipping points” in Internet usage. For example, in the last 18 months, availability of online services as well as wider adoption of home broadband has resulted in a massive expansion of data transfers despite only a marginal increase in average connection speed. Youtube and its ilk have entered a perfect storm of gradually expanding connectivity: it just so happens that at certain points, connectivity results in usage peaks (which then plateau but don’t decline) as consumers discover new ways of using the Internet to interact. This happens with the transition from dialup to always-on Internet, and it happens again at certain speed points–consider tabbed browsing as well as video on demand/what we now consider “bandwidth intensive” activities.
This could be a tipping point for economic development and global integration. Watch closely!