Once Southern Africa gets more internet, then what?

Southern Africa will be getting higher speeds for their internet connection.  Hopefully the need for community radios, traveling troubadours, and story telling the news will be replaced with media centers and news-and-information provided on cellular telephones.  New cables have reached the African shores, but the infrastructure for Southern Africa has yet to be developed.

As of March 2009, Southern African internet usage was extremely low. The Internet Penetration and the number of actual users indicate a great potential for journalism:  Mauritius has 340,000 users with an internet penetration of 26.7%, Zimbabwe (1.4 million users and 11.9%), Zambia (1.3 million users and 11.9%), South Africa (4.6 million users and 9.4%), Botswana (100,000 users and 5.1%), Namibia (101,000 users and 4.8%), Angola (498,00 users and 4.0%), Swaziland (42,000 users and 3.7%), Lesotho (70,000 users and 3.3%), Malawi (139,500 users and 1.0%) and Mazambique (200,000 users and 0.9%).

That’s a lot of people but a small percentage of the overall population that is getting news-and-information. Most of those countries have varying degrees of state control of what news-and-information is being presented.  And 75% of the people in those countries live in the most rural villages where traditional information can’t reach.  The high level of illiteracy prevents newspapers from reaching the villages. The cost of producing television news and the cost of televisions to receive the news is outside the budgets of many village Africans.  Community radio stations are independently operated and can be shut down by the government.

Africa’s mobile sector grown has defied all predictions.  According to the Cellular-News, “Africa remains the region with the highest annual growth rate in mobile subscribers and added no less than 65 million new subscribers during 2007. At the beginning of 2008, there were over a quarter of a billion mobile subscribers on the continent.” While mobile service have come down to be accessible and affordable by Africans, the Internet access has not. “In Sub-Saharan Africa, only three per cent of the population is online. The scarcity of international Internet bandwidth and lack of Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) drives up prices.”

Africa is not only the poorest region in the world, but has the most expensive Internet prices — the average monthly Internet subscription is almost $50 USD.  Based on the average income of an African, that amounts to approximately 70 percent of the average per capita income.

If news-and-information is one of the viable aspects of a healthy democracy, how can we prepare Africa for the increase of bandwidth during the next few years as the new internet cables will help bring down access costs?  African governments may not like the increase in free-press development unless they can be assured of journalism conducted in an ethical and accurate manner.   As a gathering of people interested in international journalism, what role can we play in the development of African journalism in a new era of internet journalism?

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