Al Hammond

How Africa Lags and Leads in the ICT World

Ethan Zuckerman, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, reports on the state of African connectivity development, which remains hampered by very high costs. In West Africa, for example, connectivity costs more than 66 times as much as it does in the United States–$8 per kbps versus a typical cost for US universities of $0.12 per kbps.

But Zuckerman also suggests 4 areas where Africans are leading the rest of the world:

– Narrowband – innovative connectivity solutions that use very little bandwidth, like the Ghana ?Javelin? project

– Localization – Translation of open source software into a wide variety of languages, especially through the help of organizations like

– Radio – Use of community radio for information dissemination, integration of data and radio in projects like Geekcorps Mali.

– Urban wifi – with huge wifi networks in Accra, Bamako and other African cities.

I would add one more to the list?financial services over mobile phone networks. Celtel was an early pioneer with Celpay, and Wizzit in South Africa has been among the most innovative in this space, along with Smart and Globe in the Philippines.

It is remarkable, as Zuckerman points out, that Africans are able to innovate around myriad regulatory and price barriers to lead in these areas. That suggests the question: what is the comparable list for other developing regions?

For example, I think Southeast Asia is leading the way in access to financial services over mobiles, and not just because of the Philippine carriers. The Bridge consortium is harmonizing standards across a number of companies (and countries) in the region, which will enable cross-border transactions. The Asian Development Bank is planning a conference to hone in on the security issues of mobile phone banking?both fraud and possible use of such services by terrorists are issues. Central banks in the region have begun to ponder what it means for banking regulation. In short, there is momentum and a strong sense that some meaningful experiments will happen soon.

Mongolia has been the site of a pilot for an approach that offers radically lower-cost rural connectivity?VSAT plus WiFi phone plus VoIP, for voice and voice-based applications?with a larger pilot being considered in rural Vietnam. And India is the site of a large-scale deployment of a different, store and forward model for low-cost rural connectivity, based on work by United Villages and its Indian partner. So that may put Asia in the lead in this area too.

What can others add to these lists, for these regions and for Latin America? My thought is that a list of regional ?Innovation Best Practices? might help stimulate adoption and cross-regional learning.