The Great East African Internet Infrastructure Debate: Beta
For a graduate school paper, I'm attempting to gather information on the latest state of play for bringing cheaper and more broadly available Internet access to East Africa. This is a fast-changing business and regulatory issue, so I'd be grateful for input on whether I am defining the terms of the debate correctly. The three sources I've found most helpful are:
(i) The 200 latest articles in AllAfrica's ICT News
(ii) Ethan Zuckerman and Eric Osiakwan's talk on African Internet Infrastructure at Berkman in April 2007
(iii) The syllabus of Harvard's Digital Democracy class held in Fall 2003, lead by Prof. Nesson and Andrew McLaughlin
Here is my sense of the state of play:
(i) Access to information is a crucial for human development, entrepreneurship, and integration into the global economic system;
(ii) East Africa pays more for broadband then anywhere else in the world;
(iii) A submarine cable along the coast of East Africa would be the best way to lower cost and increase access to a wide range of broadband services.
(iv) Regulation is equally important as infrastructure for creating more affordable services for consumers
Then, there seems to be two simultaneous debates taking place.
Debate #1- The Backbone Infrastructure Question
Should an East African submarine cable be:
(i) A purely free market endeavor (EASSy) with no strong regulator keeping the owners from setting rent seeking prices. This would be similar to West Africa's SAT-3 cable, and would neither create more affordable prices nor promote competition.
(ii) A public good 'Open Access' model (NEPAD Infrastructural Platform?), with price ceilings for access set by NEPAD (with support from the World Bank), allow ISP's, universities and NGO's to access the cable to provide their own services. The problem is that this would take many more years to negotiate.
(iii) 'Universal Access' model where philanthropists provide $2 billion for a submarine cable around Africa and terrestrial domestic fiber to give access to all of Africa. However, governments will immediately lost control and income through this model, and there seems to be no willing philanthropists.
Question: On Thursday, a South African news agency reported that Aga Khan invested $650 million in a SEACOM cable. This seems to be a purely free market cable. Is it the closest to being built? Has the Open Access model made any progress this year? Are any other international organizations players?
Debate #2- The African Telecom Question
Most African nations have state-owned telecoms (former monopolists) that control infrastructure and charge egregious amounts for services. There seems to be a battle of wills between these former monopolists and the ISP's, who know they can provide both data and voice at cheaper prices. Andrew McGlaughlin suggests a way to mitigate this stalemate by encouraging African Telecoms to:
(i) Diversify into IP and act as a 'connectivity cloud, selling various avenues to access that offer integrated services (voice, text, audio, video) over a single connection;'
(ii) Recognize convergence of tech issues, and encourage government departments to work together;
(iii) Encourage a strong, tenured and independent regulator that sets price ceilings when necessary.
Question: Are there any shining lights in African governance in this area? Are there any NGO initiatives promoting these goals?
This month, during the 2nd meeting of the Internet Governance Forum, a consensus emerged that access continued to be the most important issue for developing nations. The two debates mentioned above seem to be the most fundamental basic access policy questions. I would be grateful for feedback and thoughts about how this fast-changing issue is playing out.