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Monday, February 2, 2009

Experiments Bring Internet to Remote African Villages

Source: New York Times

By CHRIS NICHOLSON

Published: ENTASOPIA, Kenya - The road from Nairobi winds 100 miles to this town deep in Masai country. The asphalt gives way to sand and dust, until finally it is just a dirt track climbing over broken hills and plunging back to desert flats. The going is slow.?The outpost, with about 4,000 inhabitants, is at the end of that road and beyond the reach of power lines. It has no bank, no post office, few cars and little infrastructure. Newspapers arrive in a bundle every three or four weeks. At night, most people light kerosene lamps and candles in their houses or fires in their huts and go to bed early, except for the farmers guarding crops against elephants and buffalo.

Entasopia is the last place on earth that a traveler would expect to find an Internet connection. Yet it was here, in November, that three young engineers from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, with financial backing from Google, installed a small satellite dish powered by a solar panel, to hook up a handful of computers in the community center to the rest of the world.In recent years the mobile phone has emerged as the main modern communications link for rural areas of Africa. From 2002 to 2007, the number of Kenyans using cellphones grew almost tenfold to reach about a third of the population, many of whom did not have land lines, according to the International Telecommunication Union.
But many of the phones were simple models made more for talking than Web browsing, and wireless data networks are slow, with sporadic coverage.

Satellite connections are faster and more stable, which is why they are attracting interest from the likes of Google, as a way to provide Internet connections to the estimated 95 percent of Africans who, according to the telecommunications union, have no access.

Although providing Internet access is outside the normal business realm of Google, with this project it is looking at how obstacles might be overcome in Kenya and other parts of Africa.

The dish at Entasopia was intended to operate for months with little maintenance under harsh conditions. This station, along with two others in villages almost as remote, is part of a larger push by Google into small, marginal communities, providing them with new tools to access information, work with distant colleagues, and communicate with friends and family.

Google paid for the final design of the stations and is covering the monthly fees for satellite bandwidth. The company has also invested in O3b, a start-up that hopes to deploy a constellation of satellites over Africa by the end of next year.

"Building infrastructure is not necessarily Google's objective, but if you look at all the areas that Google has gone into, in many cases it has been to fill a gap," said Joseph Mucheru, who heads Google's East Africa office. "The market should see the opportunity."

?Just how much opportunity there is remains unclear. Google is uncertain whether such satellite stations can pay for themselves in rural areas, given the cost of equipment and bandwidth. Communities may well benefit from the connection, but they do not all have the means to afford it.

Bandwidth fees for stations like the one in Entasopia could cost as much as $700 a month, though slower ones cost less, said Wayan Vota, a senior director at Inveneo, a nonprofit that works to disseminate Internet technology throughout Africa and the developing world. As these connections are introduced more widely, which is O3b's goal, the price could fall, Mr. Vota said.

When Internet connections arrive in small towns like Entasopia, they put new tools into the hands of people hungry to use them, and for some there, that has had wide repercussions.

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