New Internationalist

Wiring Africa

Issue 286

Wiring Africa
JORGEN SCHYTTE / STILL PICTURES
Wiring Africa
The World Bank and AT&T are combining forces to run fibre-optic cable around
the whole of Africa. Cathy Majtenyi and Michele Fleet find out what’s at stake.

American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T) along with the French company Alcatel Submarine Networks plans a $2.65 billion project to encircle the African continent with 39,000 km of fibre-optic cable. Dubbed ‘Africa One’ by its corporate sponsors the scheme will connect 41 African states including all coastal countries and surrounding islands.

AT&T Submarine Systems will begin laying the cable in 1997 and is hoping to have the system up and running by the year 2000.

The giant US-based company has approached a number of major investors including the World Bank. ‘The project is still evolving,’ says Henri Bretaudeau, a public relations officer with the Bank’s Industry and Energy Department. Bretaudeau insists the World Bank will not support the project unless it benefits African countries.

According to AT&T Africa One is a development project which will ‘empower’ all Africans and save the continent big money. The company says the estimated $250 million Africans spend each year to use European telecommunications lines would be ‘reduced substantially’. And new services such as standard voice, data and facsimile services, video, teleconferencing, telemarketing and electronic mail will attract new business.

AT&T’s Technical Director for Africa One, David Ross, is confident the Bank will back the project though ‘they haven’t yet identified exactly what their conditions will be’. Ross estimates $600-$800 million in loans to African governments will be needed before the scheme can proceed. Even the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) concludes that ‘information and communication technologies can no longer be seen as a luxury for the élite but as an absolute necessity for the masses’.

Others are not so sure. The continent is already saddled with a crippling debt load and critics say the last thing Africans need is another $800 million added to the tab. From 1990-93 sub-Saharan African countries paid $13.4 billion annually to their external creditors – more than their combined spending on health and education. And in 1994 alone the continent’s debt burden increased another 3.2 per cent to $312 billion.

African development expert Paul Idahosa from Canada’s York University worries that Africa One will turn into an ‘ongoing contract’ that will yield millions for AT&T. With a limited pool of resources and expertise, Idahosa says, Africans will be restricted to playing minimal roles in the supervision and upkeep of the technology despite AT&T claims to the contrary. ‘You create a systemic dependency,’ he stresses, ‘where the whole technology is run by North Americans or Europeans to the exclusion of Africans’.

The ability of African governments to invest in the sophisticated internal infrastructure needed to link to the external lines – thereby making a technology like the Internet accessible to all – is questionable. A 1992 UN report estimates 30 to 40 per cent of African telephones are out of service at any one time. Outside of major urban areas the quality of transmission lines drops dramatically. Many African countries also have unpredictable power supplies. Data can be lost when computers are suddenly cut off and power surges can destroy equipment.

According to Kerry Gallivan of SatelLife, a non-profit organization that has set up a computer-linked health network throughout Africa, the rainy season poses a unique problem. ‘Lightning is the number one killer of computers and modems in Africa,’ admits Gallivan. ‘There is little insulation and the quality of wiring is poor so power surges travel a lot further.’

At a recent meeting of the Regional African Satellite Communications Organ-ization delegates expressed concern about the millions needed to set up a satellite system. If African governments purchase capacity on the Africa One fibre-optic cable will they have the resources to develop their own domestic networks as well?

This dilemma is typical of aid that is channelled into large-scale infrastructure rather than local forms of development. According to Pat Adams of Probe International (a long-time critic of the World Bank) most Bank projects have been ‘abysmal failures’. Rather than admit its mistakes the World Bank attributed failures to an ‘underdeveloped infrastructure’ in host countries. Idahosa suggests the Bank now sees building up infrastructure as the way to propel market reforms.

In the meantime initiatives like SatelLife which emphasize telecommunication networks linking regions across the continent may be a better use of scarce domestic resources. Although the technology may not be cutting edge it does support local African development.

Since the 1980s SatelLife has been setting up networks using satellites and local telephone lines to connect health workers to colleagues around the world. Situated in 20 African countries SatelLife relies heavily on e-mail to do the job. ‘That’s our most effective tool,’ says Gallivan. We can do up to 75 per cent of what we need to using simple e-mail.’

Cathy Majtenyi and Michele Fleet are journalists based in Toronto.    

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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996


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