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Last Updated: Thursday, 2 November 2006, 11:54 GMT
How to make the web go worldwide
  • By Darren Waters
    Technology editor, BBC News website, Athens

    World population and net usage, BBC
    Statistics show that Africa lags behind in net use
    Only one billion people out of the six billion-strong world population have internet access. So what is being done to connect up all the world's citizens?

    In South Korea more than 70% of homes have a high-speed broadband connection. It is probably one of the most connected areas on earth, with the possible exception of California and other localised parts of the US.

    Contrast that with Africa where out of a population of close to a billion people about 3.6% have net access and only 0.1% have broadband speeds.

    Often people say Africa needs food and water more than it needs broadband access and that may be true, in part, but the global economy is becoming reliant on the net and without access how can countries ever hope to be able to clothe, house and feed their citizens?

    It has taken a few decades for the net to reach a billion people, but how long will it take to reach two billion and where will those new net users be found?

    Jim Dempsey, of the US Center For Democracy and Technology, said: "The next 500 million will be easy because it will all come from China."

    Speaking at the Internet Governance Forum in Athens, he said: "The other 500 million will be spread around the world. I worry particularly about Africa being left behind here.

    "The hard problem, in my view, is Africa."

    Line noise

    Africa is not alone in struggling to keep pace with the online world - there are similar problems in parts of Asia, South America and the Middle East.

    And often the problems are common: lack of technical infrastructure, telecoms monopolies who do not have the financial means or motive to invest in technology, lack of competition, inequality of access compared with the Western world and a lack of local compelling online services.

    Craig Silliman, of network provider Verizon, said: "The number one factor in improving quality and price of access to networks is competition.

    "Why is there not more competition in many countries? What are the barriers?"

    Some at the conference felt access was needed to local loops - the local exchanges which effectively connect areas to the global net.

    Graph of net usage growth, BBC
    Interest in the net is growing fastest in Africa
    Vincent Waiswa Bagiire, director of CIPESA, an initiative to educate Africans about telecoms policy, said: "How can we get independent regulation to unbundle monopolies to increase competition?"

    Professor Milton Mueller, of the Internet Governance Project, said the key to closing the infrastructure gap was the mobilisation of "local capital" so entrepreneurs on the ground could be helped to fund the much-need technology if big business was turning away.

    Sam Paltridge of the OECD agreed: "Get a commercial core network built-out with competitive principles and then the government can, in an economical way, provide connectivity to schools and health centres."

    But should net access be left to private enterprise at all? Should national governments or international bodies like the United Nations step in?

    Kishik Park, president of the IPv6 forum in South Korea, said: "The net should be treated as food or housing. Because the net today is not just a means to communicate ideas. It is a kind of daily infrastructure for every citizen."

    He argued that competition alone is not the answer.

    "We must think about collaboration before competition."

    Wireless ways

    But what happens in areas where there are no local loops or no infrastructure at all for net access?

    Much of Africa is rural and the roll out of broadband or net access faces the "last mile problem" - connecting those people to the last point of infrastructure when they are beyond the reach of telephone wires.

    Some feel the solution in Africa is mobile networks.

    Jonne Soininen, a systems engineering manager at Nokia Networks, said: "There are now about 2.5 billion mobile phone users worldwide and soon it will be three billion.

    "This means that half of people have access to phones. This can be used as basis for providing internet access.

    "This is not at broadband speed. But its better to get access at narrow band if broadband is not available - just to get access."

    Cracked river bed, AP
    Many say some parts of Africa need water not net access
    Professor Mueller said adoption of wireless mobile networks could be a solution for Africa and other areas and lead to fast adoption of the net.

    "We could see dramatic progress because wi-fi allows much smaller investments to be made," he argued.

    "Unlicensed spectrum allows people to enter the market without having to get licenses and create local connectivity," he added.

    But there is anger among some that Africa is being treated unfairly.

    "In Africa everyone is seen as clients while in other countries there is a peering approach," said Mouhamet Diop, of the Internet Society in Senegal.

    He feels that the providers of the main network access to the net - the fat pipe - are dealing with Europe as a continent but Africa as a collection of countries or individuals.

    "We should be seen as a continent not millions of different users," he said, arguing that Africa is paying more for less when it comes to net access.

    In Senegal 500,000 people have net access, around 5% of the total population, and only 30,000 people have a broadband connection.

    The bandwidth and speeds that most net users have in Africa is a fraction of the speeds in western countries.

    In some cases, a whole country has less bandwidth than a single user in a country such as the US or South Korea.

    Mr Park felt the answer lay in harmonising and standardising "the various ways of using, providing and charging for internet usage to make the net globally available".

    How to achieve that was left unanswered? And until there is an answer, the African continent and parts of Asia, South America and the Middle East will remain outside the global net.



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