When it comes to making the internet accessible to everyone, policies, investments, and programmes should not favour a particular technology or economic model. Instead, their focus should be on the provision of quality connectivity so people can benefit from its full potential — which might require finding new solutions to offer reliable and affordable internet services even in the most remote areas.
This was the main takeaway of the side session “Internet Connectivity: Achievements to date, challenges and opportunities ahead,” which was co-hosted by the Internet Society and the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) in the framework of the first Africa-Europe D4D Hub Multi-Stakeholder Forum (MSF), which took place online on 18 March.
The session gathered representatives from satellite, fibre, and community-owned operators, as well as officials from European and African institutions, to discuss the need for everyone in the world to be meaningfully connected, the importance of keeping the internet open while factoring in cybersecurity threats, as well as the potential of innovative partnerships and new business models to bring connectivity to rural communities.
State of play and challenges ahead
Hillary Cheserek, Senior Network Engineer at Kenya Education Network (KENET), kicked off the discussion with a presentation of the Kenyan experience. He explained how the arrival of submarine cable and the government’s efforts to build its national infrastructure and to develop the skills that the country needed to distribute and run the internet, ultimately resulted in a high number of users. KENET has also played a very important role, he argued: “As a not-for-profit operator, we have extended fibre coverage to places where commercial operators could not or did not want to reach.”
Towela Nyirenda-Jere, Head of Economic Integration at AUDA/NEPAD, presented the different continental initiatives that have already been put in place under the African Union’s Programme for Infrastructure Development in Africa (PIDA). While important progress has been made, she acknowledged that significant challenges remain. For example, most efforts and investments have focused on developing country-level infrastructure, so regional connectivity is still limited. “Connectivity across borders and regions is not as good as it should be. Progress does not match our aspirations for regional integration of the continent,” she said. Moreover, Nyirenda-Jere explained that there’s still an inadequate level of implementation of data centres, which has implications in the types of digital services that can be offered across the continent.
Which model works best?
Discussing priorities moving forward, the panellists analysed the contributions and limitations of the different technologies and service provision alternatives.
Ramón Roca, President of Guifi.net, highlighted the fact that fibre does not reach everyone in Africa, and that fixed wireless access is mostly used in urban areas because for commercial operators it doesn’t make economic sense to cover rural areas. He then called for asserting the right to connectivity, which means empowering communities to build access for themselves and to avoid connectivity to be defined only by commercial interests. “Internet should be considered critical infrastructure,” he said. “People who have no money or who live in a low-density area still have the right to access it.”
Aarti Holla-Maini, Secretary General of the Global Satellite Operators Association (GSOA), highlighted the important role of satellites to expand connectivity across Africa. She argued that fibre has its limitations as many people live far away from a fibre node, and many countries have no access to sea and land-based technology alone is very expensive.
To overcome those challenges, panellists suggested the adoption of smart and innovative technologies and an integrated corridor approach, which would contribute to continental integration by prioritising projects that improve connectivity between urban and rural areas and link different infrastructure sectors together to reduce costs and develop cross-sectoral synergies.
Collaboration and partnering are also critical to develop new models that can best serve people, speakers said. For example, a multi-technological approach could allow technologies to complement each other.
In this spirit, Lars-Erik Forsberg, Deputy Head of the International Cooperation unit at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology, called for joint efforts between African and European industry, academia, civil society and governments to connect the unconnected, and for both sides to learn from each other’s experiences. “We need both sides to be present and to express their views. It’s not only about Europe supporting Africa, but the other way around too,” he concluded.
Do you want to learn more? Watch the session recording:
For more information about the MSF, download the event report.