FREETOWN, Sierra Leone — For all the progress Sierra Leone and other West African post-conflict nations have made in recent years, one thing has remained elusive — high-speed internet access.
Internet cafes are packed with people during the day, yet most spend their time idly staring at pages loading at a snail's pace or at lost network connections.
Most of the country and the region rely on satellite networks, which, by the time signals are beamed to earth and dispersed, are as slow as America’s old-school dial-up speeds. Purchasing extra capacity on satellites is costly and often does little to increase speeds.
“The people want something that’s faster,” said Brima George, one of the managers for Mednatu Internet, an internet cafe on the west side of Freetown.
An hour of computer time costs $1.25, but little can be accomplished because of the network traffic crawl.
Africa has the lowest household broadband penetration rate in the world at 2.3 percent as of September 2009, according to research firm Informa Telecoms & Media. The penetration rate in the Middle East, the next lowest, is 9.4 percent. (Read about South Africa's growing internet usage.)
The only way for Sierra Leone to get its share of broadband subscribers is to bring fiber optic cables that can carry across the Atlantic Ocean vast amounts of web, voice, data and video traffic at lightning speeds. That would improve internet access and bring connection costs down for providers and consumers.
Efforts are underway. Sierra Leone is one of several West African nations looking to
connect to a string of fiber optic cables being run under the Atlantic Ocean from Portugal to South Africa.
However the process has been fraught with challenges, say members of Sierra Leone’s telecommunications community, leaving some doubt whether efforts — which have been going on since 2007 — will result in faster web surfing anytime soon. Telecom officials are promising faster connections by 2011.
The government chose Globalink Sierra Leone to tap into the cable and bring the high-speed lines to the shores of Freetown.
Globalink, an upstart founded by a group of Sierra Leoneans with decades of experience in the U.S. telecom industry, said it took 18 months to complete the entire bidding and application process. But it has yet to begin any tangible work on securing fiber lines.
A complicating factor is that Globalink isn’t working alone. Although it has a 30 percent stake in the multi-million dollar project, the government is a 40 percent stakeholder and SierraTel, a quasi-governmental telecommunications entity has the remaining 30 percent stake.
But it’s unclear what role each of the partners will play in the rollout, which includes plans to bring high-speed access to rural, upcountry areas. There’s also talk of change to that setup, but details have not been confirmed.
“The biggest challenge is to negotiate in good faith, putting together a structure that would be beneficial for all,” said Sam Bangura, Globalink’s director of government and public affairs. “It’s going to be a lot of give and take.”
The government plans to divest its 40 percent stake as it identifies other companies willing to provide internet-based services, according to Frank Manja, commissioner for Sierra Leone’s National Telecommunications Commission (NATCOM.)
He said bringing fiber optic connections to Sierra Leone would help attract foreign investment and help local firms expand.
“The main focus now is to land fiber,” Manja said. “The fiber is going to be an agent in the economic development of the nation.”
There were 6.4 million broadband subscribers in Africa as of June 2009, a 61 percent increase over 2008 figures. That subscriber base is expected to swell to 191 million, says Informa.
For Sierra Leone, having the submarine cables linked to its shores isn’t enough.
“There also needs to be improvements to terrestrial backbone cabling within and between African countries to ensure that the benefit flows through to operators and consumers,” said Informa Telecoms analyst Matthew Reed.
Manja said there are plans to develop a fiber ring that would provide fast connections to community centers in rural areas.
But it’s hard to imagine fiber lines running through a country where electricity and water lines are often old and fragile. A network technology called WiMAX is expected to pick up where cell towers leave off and wires cannot go.
A WiMAX network is similar to a WiFi one, but the signals are stronger and have a longer range.
“(WiMAX) might be able to secure quite a substantial niche in Africa because it is cheaper and easier to roll out a wireless system … for broadband access than to build a new wireline network,” Reed said.
Back at the internet cafe, Brima George had never heard of WiMAX, but smiled and nodded vigorously when asked if he had heard of fiber-based broadband and plans to bring it to Sierra Leone.
He eagerly anticipates the day, saying: “We would upgrade.”