Sun, Jul 22, 2007 - Page 19 News List

Africa waits to get online

Attempts to bring affordable high-speed Internet service to the masses have floundered because of poor infrastructure

By RON NIXON  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Jean Claude Rwagasore checks a microwave transmitter in Kigali, Rwanda for Terracom.

On a muggy day in Kigali in 2003, some of the highest-ranking officials in the Rwandan government, including President Paul Kagame, flanked an American businessman, Greg Wyler, as he boldly described how he could help turn their small country into a hub of Internet activity.

Wyler, an executive based in Boston who made his fortune during the tech boom, said he would lace Rwanda with fiber optic cables, connecting schools, government institutions and homes with low-cost, high-speed Internet service. Until that point, Wyler, 37, had never set foot in Africa - he was invited by a Rwandan government official he had met at a wedding. Wyler never expected to start a business there; he simply wanted to try to help the war-torn country.

Even so, Wyler's company, Terracom, was granted a contract to connect 300 schools to the Internet. Later, the company would buy 99 percent of the shares in Rwandatel, the country's national telecommunications company, for US$20 million.

But after nearly four years, most of the benefits hailed by him and his company have failed to materialize, Rwandan officials say. "The bottom line is that he promised many things and didn't deliver," said Albert Butare, the country's telecommunications minister.

Wyler says he sees things quite differently, and he and Rwandan officials will probably never agree on why their joint venture has been so slow to get off the ground.

UNREALISTIC expectations

Attempts to bring affordable high-speed Internet service to the masses have made little headway on the continent. Less than 4 percent of Africa's population is connected to the Web; most subscribers are in North African countries and the republic of South Africa.

A lack of infrastructure is the biggest problem. In many countries, communications networks were destroyed during years of civil conflict, and continuing political instability deters governments or companies from investing in new systems. E-mail messages and phone calls sent from some African countries have to be routed through Britain, or even the US, increasing expenses and delivery times. About 75 percent of African Internet traffic is routed this way and costs African countries billions of extra US dollars each year that they would not incur if their infrastructure was up to date.

As of this week, only one-third of the 300 schools covered in Terracom's contract had high-speed Internet service. All 300 were supposed to have been connected by 2006.

Overall, less than 1 percent of the population is connected to the Internet. Rwandan officials say the company seems more interested in tapping the more lucrative cell phone market than in being an Internet service provider. (In November, Wyler stepped down as chief executive of Terracom.)

In a telephone interview from his home in Boston, Wyler said there were some things he had not anticipated, particularly the technical challenges of linking Rwanda's Internet network to the rest of the world. The only way to do it is to buy bandwidth capacity on satellites, but there are not enough satellites to meet demand.

Wyler also says he believes that Terracom suffers from unrealistic expectations. "Terracom has done everything it can," he said. "Because of the technical challenges, the Internet service is as good as it's going to get."

The Rwandan government had hoped that the number of Web surfers would be much higher by now. Rwanda, which is about the size of Maryland, has little industry, and its infrastructure is still being rebuilt after the 1994 genocide in which 800,000 to a million people were killed.

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