KIRUKU: Rwanda is right, let’s give everyone free internet

Paul Kagame

A study conducted by a British food company and published by The Telegram sometime back listed slow internet at number nine among the top 100 most annoying things, and rightfully so. A slow internet connection or none at all in this day and age is not just annoying, but costly and time wasting.

But the era of slow internet connectivity in East Africa is about to come to an end if regional leaders embrace the initiative of Liquid Telecom, an independent data, voice and IP provider in Eastern, Central and Southern Africa. The company is embarking on a project to build a new submarine cable infrastructure that will provide a cost-effective and reliable link for landlocked, Southern, Central and East African countries to the internet and to the world.

The company says it wants to plant a cable that will run along the east coast of Africa and into the Red Sea to Europe, which is a less congested route. The cable will interconnect with all existing networks and with other international submarine cables.

Internet services have not been satisfactory across the region, with many companies complaining of the cost, unavailability and poor connectivity. This has driven businesses to hop from one Internet Service Provider (ISP) to another, with little or no improved connectivity.

The reasons for this situation include a lack of reliable electricity, high operational and maintenance costs of infrastructure, and poor security against vandalism, as well as high spectrum and licence fees. These are challenges that require a multi-sectoral approach to tackle.

According to Liquid Telecom, Kenya currently leads Africa in terms of connectivity, with the highest bandwidth per person on the continent, the fastest speeds, and some of the lowest internet costs. Still, these costs remain far beyond the reach of many citizens; the speed, too, is nothing to talk about, especially in rural areas.

In Rwanda, the government has gone an extra mile to make internet availability and accessibility to the citizens a reality through the launch of the government-backed “Smart Kigali” project. Many people in Rwanda now have access to free internet via Wi-Fi enabled devices.

Rwanda’s effort to make internet connectivity widely and freely available is commendable. The government signed a USD140 million deal with South Korea’s largest telco – Korea Telecom (KT) Corp in June, 2013 to provide 4G Long Term Evolution (LTE) Broadband networks across the country, especially in areas where internet connectivity is low. The deal is considered to be one of the biggest FDI deals ever in the East African nation.

In order to widen and deepen economic, political, social and cultural integration across the EAC region as well as improve the quality of life for the citizens, good internet connectivity is paramount. It will not only improve the quality of life of the people of East Africa but will also put the region in the global limelight and at par with other fast-developing global economies.

The region must now support Liquid Telecoms initiative – and those of other independent data, IP and voice providers – by providing a Cross-Border Inter-Connectivity Regulatory Framework in order to guide and facilitate inter-connections across borders within the EAC. The interconnections could also be shared with other regional economic blocs in Africa so as to boost deeper economic ties with the rest of Africa as well.

The region must similarly invest in cross-border terrestrial networks, which are expanding rapidly in Africa. The investment in this national and local infrastructure is absolutely key to increasing African Internet speeds and reducing the cost to all users.

But governments must also come together and find ways of tackling the challenges accompanying increased connectivity and internet access. Challenges of cyber-crime and privacy concerns must be dealt with if we are to reap the full benefits of internet access.

The African Union has so far developed a Convention on Cyber-security and Personal Data Protection that will, among other things, commit member states to establish legal frameworks for e-transactions, protection of data, and punishment of violations. But achieving a secure environment and protecting privacy requires collaboration from all Internet governance actors.

Access to the internet is a basic human right as resolved by United Nations. Efforts to make this a reality are paramount. Governments must therefore find a balance between harnessing Internet usage and online freedom. Curtailing the freedom of expression and information, while at the same time trying to harness the internet in the interest of promoting economic development, presents a great dilemma for government leaders with an authoritarian mindset.

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