[governance] Effects of lack of electricity on the digital divide

yehudakatz at mailinator.com yehudakatz at mailinator.com
Sun Jul 22 14:43:31 EDT 2007

Brilliant post Kwasi - excellent
I also found this article interesting:

Africa, mostly offline, struggles to get on the Internet 
By Ron Nixon
Re: The International Herald Tribune | www.iht.com

Sunday, July 22, 2007 
On a muggy day in Kigali in 2003, some of the highest-ranking officials in the
Rwandan government, including President Paul Kagame, flanked an American
businessman, Greg Wyler, as he boldly described how he could help turn their
small country into a hub of Internet activity.

Wyler, an executive based in Boston who made his fortune during the technology
boom, said he would lace Rwanda with fiber optic cables, connecting schools,
government institutions and homes with low-cost, high-speed Internet service.

Until that point, Wyler, 37, had never set foot in Africa - he was invited by a
Rwandan government official he had met at a wedding. Wyler never expected to
start a business there; he simply wanted to try to help the war-torn country.

Even so, Wyler's company, Terracom, was granted a contract to connect 300
schools to the Internet. Later, the company would buy 99 percent of the shares
in Rwandatel, the national telecommunications company, for $20 million.

But after nearly four years, most of the benefits hailed by him and his company
have failed to materialize, Rwandan officials say. "The bottom line is that he
promised many things and didn't deliver," Albert Butare, the Rwandan
telecommunications minister, said.

Wyler says he sees things differently and that he and the Rwandan officials
will probably never agree on why their joint venture has been so slow to get
off the ground. But Terracom's tale is more than a story about a business
dispute in Rwanda. It is also emblematic of what can happen when good
intentions run into the technical, political and business realities of Africa.

Attempts to bring affordable high-speed Internet service to the masses have
made little headway on the continent. Less than 4 percent of the African
population is connected to the Web. Most subscribers are in North African
countries and the republic of South Africa.

A lack of infrastructure is the biggest problem. In many countries, years of
civil conflict destroyed communications networks, and continuing political
instability deters governments or companies from investing in new systems.

E-mail messages and phone calls sent from some African countries have to be
routed through Britain, or even the United States, increasing expenses and
delivery times. About 75 percent of African Internet traffic is routed this way
and costs African countries billions of extra dollars each year that they would
not incur if their infrastructure was up to date.

"Most African governments haven't paid much attention to their infrastructure,"
said Vincent Oria, an associate professor of computer science at the New Jersey
Institute of Technology who is from the Ivory Coast. "In places where hunger,
AIDS and poverty are rampant, they didn't see it as critical until now."

Rwandan officials were especially interested in wiring schools, seeing
information technology as crucial to modernizing the rural economy.

But as of mid-July, only one-third of the 300 schools covered in Terracom's
contract had high-speed Internet service. All 300 were supposed to have been
connected by 2006.

Overall, less than 1 percent of the population is connected to the Internet.
Rwandan officials say Terracom seems more interested in tapping the more
lucrative cellphone market than in being an Internet service provider.

In November, Wyler stepped down as chief executive of Terracom, saying he
wanted to spend more time with his family. He still serves on the board.

Wyler said by telephone from his Boston home that he would not address the
government's criticism. He said he did not want to be quoted as saying anything
negative. But he said there were some things he had not anticipated,
particularly the technical challenges of linking the Rwandan Internet network
to the rest of the world.

"Terracom has done everything it can, " he said. "Because of the technical
challenges, the Internet service is as good as it's going to get. But given
what we started from, I still think we have accomplished a lot. In the
beginning there were a few people with Internet service. Now there are

The Rwandan government had hoped that the number of Web surfers would be much
higher by now. Rwanda has little industry, and its infrastructure is still
being rebuilt after the 1994 genocide in which 800,000 to a million people were

"We have almost no natural resources and no seaports in Rwanda, which leaves us
only with trying to become a knowledge-based society," said Romain Murenzi, the
Rwandan minister of science, technology and scientific research.

Wyler said he had not been involved in Terracom for nearly 10 months and could
not comment on its current operations.

Christopher Lundh, Terracom's new chief executive and a former executive of
Gateway Communications in London, has worked in several African countries. He
now lives and works full time in Rwanda, and many government officials say
Terracom's performance has improved under his leadership.

Lundh said there were problems with the company's operations in the past but
that the Rwandan government was responsible for some of the delays.

"We would get to schools that don't even have electricity or computers," he
said. "That is not our fault."

In addition, he said that many of the complaints about the company concerned
things beyond its ability to control. Getting adequate bandwidth remains a
constant challenge. Like most telecommunications companies in eastern Africa,
Terracom depends on satellites for Internet service. Satellite service is much
slower than cable because of delays in the signals. Satellites also provide
less bandwidth than cable.

Adding to the problem is that most of the satellites serving Africa were
launched nearly 20 years ago and are aging or going out of commission. A
satellite set to go into service last year blew up on the launching pad. Power
is also an issue, as intermittent power failures in Rwanda hamper efforts to
provide a steady electricity source.

Despite these limitations and earlier setbacks, Lundh said Terracom was moving
ahead with plans to give Rwanda the most advanced Internet infrastructure in
Africa. A nationwide wireless connection should begin operating near year-end,
he said.

Magnus K. Mazimpaka contributed reporting from Rwanda.
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