Internet in Africa: A well-organised racket

By Frédéric Dubois Publisher: Alternatives     MONTREAL,

Illustration: Matias Bervejillo for APCIllustration: Matias Bervejillo for APCIbrahima Yade climbs the stairs leading to the floor where his small company, SeneLogic, is housed. A start-up social economics company, whose slogan is “La sénégalaise des logiciels libres” [The Senegalese of free software]. From his height of two metres, Ibrahima, the forty-year old, tells his four younger colleagues that the software development session has been interrupted because of a power cut.

SeneLogic, with an established office in the Sacré-Cœur quarter of Dakar, Senegal, is making progress despite infrastructure-related problems. Although Senegal is a mecca of affordable mobile telephony, broadband internet access is another story. SeneLogic therefore pays five times more to be connected than a company in Berlin and seven times more than one in Montreal.

This extremely expensive internet, which is hardly reliable or barely affordable, is burying African economies in a situation of unacceptable under-development.

Who says that broadband or high-speed internet means a fibre optic infrastructure? Wireless internet certainly does exist, but when we talk about high speed, we are entering the domain of backbones, the heavy artillery that allows multimedia data to be transferred. It is precisely these backbones that are making the internet experience reliable and fast. However, on the African coastlines, these undersea cables are enormously deficient.

Is it a lack of money? “No,” says Mike Jensen, author of the document “Interconnection Costs”, published by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC). And it should be noted that, with regard to telecoms, the financial windfall is enormous, so much so that no African operation has gone bankrupt to date.

Mobile telephony is the motor behind these monster profits throughout West Africa. Ibrahima Yade, like three million of his fellow countrymen, uses the cellular telephone services of the company, Orange. This represents one quarter of the population. This figure is testimony to the large Senegalese appetite for cheap communications. By way of comparison, Bell Mobility “only” has six million users in Canada, which is one person in five.

According to Mike Jensen, high internet costs are a result of monopolistic African telecommunications operators. In the main controlled by European or American interests, they are hardly inclined towards the development of internet backbones.

The operators therefore use their position to pass the buck to local internet service providers (ISPs) who “have to pay for both ends of their international connections”, that is, when they upload or download data, Jensen tells us. Ultimately, it will be up to Ibrahima Yade and others like him to struggle with swallowing unpalatable connectivity costs, which amount to more than 250 Canadian dollars a month. The case of Sonatel, which has had direct access to the SAT-3 undersea cable since 2002, is patent. The only operator in Senegal, of which France Télécom owns 43%, passes on the bill to West African ISPs. These ISPs have to transit their international traffic via Sonatel. Countries such as Mali, Guinea Bissau and Burkina Faso are completely dependent on this Senegalese “sea access”, which means exorbitant costs and a level of reliability that is subject to the numerous power cuts in this country.

Sonatel lives like a lord, pocketing the profits without so much as reinvesting in the development of telecommunications infrastructures. However, this operator is also a victim, since it has to pay upstream transit costs to developed countries. In fact, Sonatel has its hands tied in a transit agreement with one of its major shareholders, France Télécom. The astronomical amounts spent by African customers in accessing the internet thus migrate towards Europe. “This reverse subsidy towards the North has aggravated the imbalances between developed and developing regions,” explains Mike Jensen.

This incongruity is not only caused by France Télécom or other western companies. The managers of Sonatel and other African telecommunications companies, as well as the continent’s political leaders, also have their share of responsibility.

Breaking the consumer mindset

“All African countries can make it, if they decide to,” states Mohamed Diop, a Senegalese telecommunications engineer. “We must be considered as peers of Europe, other African countries and the United States,” he says. In June, Mohamed Diop attended the foundation workshop for GOReTIC – a civil society network committed to reform of the African telecommunications sector.

Formerly with Sonatel, Mohamed Diop previousy asserted his viewpoint at the Internet Governance Forum held in Rio de Janeiro in December 2007. Some of the continent’s companies, such as South Africa’s Telkom, had then tried to hush up the issue. His vision with regard to transit interconnection agreements is called “peering”, in telecoms jargon. This type of exchange would, however, represent a threat to the short-term profit of these companies.

Echoing the analysis of the South African, Mike Jensen, Mohamed Diop hammers out that: “what we want is for Africa’s expenditure on internet access, connectivity, to go towards infrastructural development.”

Connecting at the sub-regional level

In addition to access to the undersea backbones, telecommunications specialists maintain that it is necessary to create backbones across the entire continent. To get to this point, they recommend the open access model. Under this model, notably proven in Asia, a financial arrangement open to all kinds of investors (large companies, governments, small ISPs organised into associations, groups of users) would enable the injection of the funds necessary for the establishment of telecoms infrastructures beneficial to all partners.

In order to succeed, African civil societies and telecommunications sectors must change their practices so as to increase their collaboration. From their side, the large predator companies, mainly from Europe, must be forced to revise their agreements with African operators.

The establishment of the GOREeTIC network is supposed to be civil society’s response to this interconnection challenge. The network acts not as an investor but as a lubricant, so that the West and Central African stakeholders change things at the top political and economic level. This necessitates finding solutions jointly with parliamentarians, bringing together civil society and small ISPs, and investing in sub-regional regulatory bodies.

This objective is not unrealistic, because in the internet domain, Africa does not always draw the short straw. For example, it succeeded brilliantly in breaking this simple consumer dynamic in the domain of IP addresses – the numbers which identify each computer connected to the internet. By going to war, the organisation AfrinIC came into being, and is now managing the continent’s IP addresses.

note: GOREeTIC is an initiative by CICEWA

The author is the information and media relations coordinator for the Association of Progressive Communications (APC).

This article appeared in the monthly publication “Alternatives Issue 20 August 2008”:

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