The global Internet continues to grow at an exponential rate, bringing with it new ways of transacting, communicating, learning, socializing, and transforming just about every aspect of daily life. But the benefits of the Internet are not yet evenly distributed. In Africa, despite a slow start, Internet use is now rapidly accelerating, and its transformative effects are increasingly accessible.
The Internet in Africa is growing fast. Internet penetration levels are about 20% and rising. Mobile subscriptions are just shy of 70%, and mobile broadband access accounts for more than 90% of Internet subscriptions. But the aggregate indicators mask glaring disparities. At the high end of the spectrum, countries such as Morocco enjoy penetration rates above 50%, but at the other end are countries with penetration rates below 2%, and the majority of countries have Internet penetration of less than 10% (well below the 20% threshold that has been found to be critical for countries to reap the economic benefits of broadband investment).
Nevertheless, recent years have seen the accumulated efforts of dedicated technologists, businesses, policy makers, civil society, and individuals bear fruit, pointing to improved outcomes and laying the ground for the social and economic benefits that the Internet can bring.
In the past five years, submarine cables have brought a twenty-fold increase in international bandwidth. In the same period, the terrestrial infrastructure also doubled. These developments have brought dramatic improvements in many areas. But to make the most of this capacity, more investment is needed in national backbones and cross-border connectivity.
Considerable work is now underway to improve the conditions that currently mean users in Africa pay up to 30 or 40 times more for Internet access than their peers in developed countries. One example is the establishment of Internet exchange points (IXPs) at the local level. Africa now has more than 30 IXPs and is well on the way to achieving the goal of at least one IXP per country. Efforts to establish at least one regional IXP in each of the five geographic regions are also well underway. IXPs can catalyse the build-out of terrestrial infrastructure, which in turn makes access to the Internet cheaper and faster.
Migrating from analogue to digital broadcasting offers more opportunities to increase Internet access by freeing up unused spectrum. However, this opportunity is not yet being grasped – by June 2014, only 19 countries had started their digital transition and by December 2014 only three (Tanzania, Rwanda, Mauritius) had switched off their analogue signals.
Another transition that Africa is not implementing fast enough is that to the new Internet addressing protocol, IPv6. IPv6 is necessary for long term Internet expansion, especially as the Internet of Things (IoT) becomes a reality. To date, South Africa and Egypt registered 97% of the African IPv6 addresses, which means adoption in all the other countries is lagging.
Most national ICT policies and strategies mention capacity building as a priority; however, most countries fall short on implementation. This translates into significant capacity gaps – especially at the level of specialists able to build and maintain infrastructure and services – making Africa overly reliant on external expertise. Africa needs a coherent strategy for capacity development at all levels, and this strategy needs to look first at ICTs as a discipline and secondly as a cross-cutting enabler of other disciplines.
The benefits of increased connectivity and Internet access come with the attendant challenges of cybercrime and privacy concerns. The African Union has developed a Convention on Cybersecurity and Personal Data Protection that would, among other things, commit member states to establish legal frameworks for e-transactions, protection of data, and punishment of violations. But, achieving a secure environment and protecting privacy requires collaboration from all Internet governance actors.
The Arab Spring of 2011, the Snowden revelations of 2013, and other events at the intersection of human rights and cyberspace have galvanized the global community – mainly through the United Nations – to seek common understanding and solutions that ensure respect of fundamental rights online. In 2014, addressing concerns of human rights online, a coalition of organizations launched the African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms, which is aimed at promoting human rights and openness in policy-making and implementation as they relate to Internet development in Africa.
And 2015 holds several significant milestones for Internet governance and development. First, this year marks the end of the Millennium Development Goals, which will now be replaced by Sustainable Development Goals. The African Union has also launched its Agenda 2063, spelling out development aspirations for the next 50 years. Second, it is now ten years since the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) Tunis phase and is thus a time for reflection on progress made, opportunities missed, challenges faced, and the road ahead. And this year, the UN General Assembly will make a determination on whether or not to extend the mandate of the IGF.
As Africa’s infrastructure and user base grows, the need to coordinate and manage Internet growth and development becomes increasingly important. Several institutions and processes have emerged over the last 15 years, each playing a role in strengthening Africa’s Internet ecosystem. Africa has embraced the multistakeholder model of Internet governance which enables policymakers to draw from the expertise of the relevant stakeholders to develop sustainable Internet public policy approaches that can meet the policy challenges of the digital age. Internet governance fora have emerged at continental, regional and national levels and are proving to be an essential part of Africa’s Internet ecosystem.
Africa’s significant growth in mobile communications and steady growth in Internet penetration are in large part attributable to efforts by African governments working in partnership with other stakeholders to create an enabling environment, fostering the development of Internet infrastructure. Africa’s Internet Institutions are driving this development and putting the multistakeholder model of Internet governance into practice. The high growth in Internet and mobile access since 2005 can be attributed in part to the strengthening of existing institutions, the emergence of regional and national IGFs, and the increased commitment of African governments to ICT development. As Africa continues to make further strides in building its Internet economy, the multistakeholder model will continue to be an important element helping Africa to reach a critical mass of access and usage translating into sustained economic benefit.