East Africa getting ready for internet revolution

East Africa is one of the last major regions in the world to not have true international broadband (aka: “fat pipes”).  The recent deployment of the SEACOM broadband cable off the coast of east Africa has sparked “the dawn of a new era” in Internet communications in the region.

A June 28–29 symposium in Uganda organized by the U.S. telecom firm Verizon Communications and other planning partners is an effort to help improve East Africa’s Internet links with the rest of the world and thus stimulate enhanced educational opportunities and economic growth and development across the region, the executive said.

Kathryn C. Brown, senior vice president of public policy development and corporate responsibility at Verizon, spoke with America.gov June 21 and previewed the event, which is expected to attract some 120 government, business and education representatives from the target countries of Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi. The symposium seeks to improve Internet access and applications for the region’s institutions of higher education.

“There was no [easy] connectivity to East Africa prior to the installation of that underwater cable,” Brown explained. “You would either have to come up from South Africa or you needed to go all the way up to Egypt in order to reach the rest of the world. Now Internet connectivity is sitting on the shores of East Africa — and for that connectivity to be deployed for folks to start to see the potential for this infrastructure development, it is going to be a real eye-opener.”

Brown, who will travel to Uganda for the symposium, said that, historically, East Africa has been “one of the least-connected regions” of sub-Saharan Africa. “The Internet connectivity there is largely poor, particularly when you get outside the international conference areas. Many African nations were forced to rely on limited, expensive satellite services alone for their international connectivity needs. This is now changing, due to the arrival of undersea cables. There is an opportunity now and a willingness on the part of the [telecom] carriers there to build out a national backbone infrastructure. The governments are very interested, the large stakeholders are very interested in having this connectivity, and Verizon, while not in East Africa right now, has had a real interest in seeing that the entire world is connected to the Internet.”

If the region becomes fully integrated into the World Wide Web, Brown predicted that “the changes, frankly, will be far-reaching. As we have seen around the world, once a region becomes connected to the rest of the world, the amount of economic development is staggering. So the construction of a stable, reliable, trusted [Internet] infrastructure in the region will no doubt stimulate investment and competition in Africa” and increase foreign investment. “Fostering the innovation and expansion of the Internet allows the region to fully participate in the 21st century.”

The major universities in East Africa are “hungry for connectivity,” Brown said. Recalling how Verizon got involved in promoting the symposium, she said Uganda Martyrs University wanted to do “distance learning” (using the Internet to teach people remotely) throughout Uganda and East Africa.

The focus at the symposium, she explained, will be “the kinds of education gains that could be made if the connectivity was more robust and how that whole network of more than 50 universities all across East Africa could become the basis for network expansion all across the region.”

Asked what gains could be achieved, she said: “If one looks at the program for the conference, you can see that there will be lots of deep thinking about getting ready for deeper and broader higher education in East Africa. … Bringing students to the universities” across East Africa to access information they would not already have had access to will be “huge. You can tap all the great libraries of the world — all of the medical schools … the law schools, the international schools. It is a phenomenal access that one gains.”

Second, she said, the symposium is trying to address distance learning all over Africa so that students can be reached wherever they are.

Third, she said, professional schools such as medical and law schools want to be able to use the Internet to reach out to local clinics and law practices across the region.

“As connectivity becomes more robust, the network becomes more robust and the things that one can do on the network just multiply. We have seen that in the United States, we have seen it in Europe. And, frankly, one only needs to look at India to see what happens when a country that was considered a developing country opens its borders to the Net. There, of course, we know that there is a huge middle class that never existed before and an opening to the world that I think has been an incredible story and one we would like to see all over the world and the developing world.”

Overall, the conference hopes to connect education, communication and government and spur a dialogue to move forward and use the Internet to promote greater economic growth and development across East Africa, she said.

Attendees will include the vice chancellor of Uganda Martyrs University, faculty members from Makerere University, the rector of the Islamic University of Uganda and representatives from some 25 universities from across East Africa. The chancellor of the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) will be there to speak on the link between Internet connectivity and education, and senior government officials from the region will be in attendance, along with representatives from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which coordinates global telecom operations.

Additionally, she said, U.S. Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Judith A. McHale will address the group. “We are just so pleased that she is going to come to speak at the conference,” Brown said. Additionally, major service providers like AT&T, Google, Motorola, Qualcomm, Ericsson and Intelsat will join local operators to lend their voices and expertise to the conversation.

More on the expansion of broadband and the internet in Africa in previous post.

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