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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Tech majors bridge Africa’s rising online connectivity

With a growing middle class and rising connectivity, global internet companies such as Facebook and Google are moving in. And regional firms such as Etisalat are getting involved.
A Google Project Loon balloon. The plan has delivered mixed results – last year a balloon was found crashed in rural South Africa. Marty Melville / AFP
A Google Project Loon balloon. The plan has delivered mixed results – last year a balloon was found crashed in rural South Africa. Marty Melville / AFP

CAPE TOWN // Online connectivity is growing across Africa, and big tech companies such as Google and Facebook are taking notice, moving in to fill a gap left by under-investment in telecoms industry infrastructure by established players.

More than a billion souls inhabit the continent, a lot of potential eyeballs for advertisers. A growing middle class combined with expanding internet activity is bringing people to social networks. Facebook has grown its African users by more than 40 per cent to 170 million in just two years.

“Since we first established a direct presence in sub-Saharan Africa in 2015, Facebook has grown from strength to strength,” says Nunu Ntshingila, the regional director for Africa at Facebook in Johannesburg. So fast has the expansion been that the social media behemoth had to move into larger offices in April this year.

Facebook has no intention of slowing down. However, in order to grow users it, like other digital media platforms, must overcome a fundamental shortage of infrastructure. In most cities internet access is fairly easy to come by. This is where most of the digital migration has happened, yet a huge untapped market lies further beyond, in smaller towns and rural areas.

Facebook’s co-founder and chairman, Mark Zuckerberg, has said internet access is a basic human right and Facebook’s Free Basics initiative allows mobile users to access the social network without cost, which is now available in more than 20 countries south of the Sahara.

Free Basics was not without controversy. It provides a platform with a limited set of websites, so not the full internet experience. In theory, a throttled service could be used to influence political discussion, among other things. It could become, as a Foreign Policy magazine writer called it recently, “a dictators’ dream”.

“I worry that providing limited access could have unintended effects on those who are introduced to the “internet” for the first time,” says Gbenga Sesan, the executive director of Paradigm Initiative Nigeria, an IT-focused nonprofit.

“Also, from my work with underserved youth over the past few years, we’ve seen that the poor can pay for what they need based on priorities, as we saw with mobile phones and top-up cards required to make calls.”

Facebook appears to have arrived at this conclusion too, and has begun providing another service – Wi-Fi hotspots where users can pay for the full internet experience, a Facebook spokesman says. “With the purchase of Wi-Fi data packs, customers can access the internet, based on the package they select, by the day, week or month. There are options for people who use a little bit of data, or a lot of it.”

These hotspots have begun rolling out in Kenya and Nigeria in partnership with the country’s mobile operators, including the UAE’s Etisalat. Already there are more than 100 hotspots across the greater Nairobi metropolitan area, with other cities soon to follow, Facebook says.

Although the hot spots are not free, the company says it will lower the cost as much as possible, in part by working with network carriers such as Etisalat Nigeria.

“People are sensitive to data prices on the continent,” Carolyn Everson, Facebook’s vice president of global marketing, told Bloomberg in Johannesburg in April. “Infrastructure is expensive and that is why we are looking for partners. We are partnering with telecommunications infrastructure projects and, as a result, bringing down the price of data.”

Facebook also recently announced the construction of 770 kilometres of fibre-optic cables in Uganda, which it hopes will encourage more users in the landlocked country.

Google, meanwhile, is also in pursuit of the “missing billion” – those mostly in developing countries who seldom go online. For its part the company spent the past year training 1 million African people through its Digital Skills Programme. About 20 countries participated, a Google spokesman says.

“Thanks to increased internet penetration in Africa, young Africans can now leverage online platforms to find information, to communicate and to create and publish content,” the spokesman said. To make learning easier, courses are often given in local languages such as Swahili, IsiZulu and Hausa, common tongues of east, south and western Africa, respectively.

The digital skills training can also be accessed through an online portal for ongoing training. This is currently available in French and English, but Portuguese is being added as well. Ultimately, Google hopes the trainees will use the Web to develop businesses of their own.

Google is also involved in Project Link, which has rolled out metro fibre networks in Uganda and Ghana. “More than half of the world’s 7 billion people are online but not all of them have good connections. We want to help improve their experience, as well as get the other half connected,” the company says.

Another Google effort is perhaps a little more fanciful. Project Loon is an attempt to provide internet via an overhead fleet of balloons. These will float on wind currents beaming down signals to access the Web. While certainly a bold idea, Project Loon has delivered mixed results. Last year a balloon was found crashed in rural South Africa. Numerous others have been found crashed at test areas around the world. A Google spokesman declined to comment on the topic.

business@thenational.ae

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