This year marks the 25th birthday of the World Wide Web – today more commonly just called the Web. It was invented by British computer scientist Sir Tim Berners-Lee in March 1989 while he was working at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN).
Frustrated at the difficulties that scientists faced in sharing information, Berners-Lee came up with a solution and then nurtured it to become a global communications network that has transformed everything around us.
The Web works with the Internet, a global system of interconnected computer networks that use standard protocols to link several billion devices worldwide.
They are linked by a broad array of electronic, wireless, and optical networking technologies. Since Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin in 1928, no other technologies have had a greater impact - especially in remote parts of the world - like Internet and the Web.
These technologies have changed how doctors treat patients, how students learn, how financial institutions transact and a plethora of other services.
Revenue to firms already created by the Web is surely impossible to estimate accurately, but it runs into trillions of dollars. For example, Amazon Web Services (AWS), a leading US Web services company, earned $3.8 billion in 2013 revenue, up from $2.1 billion in 2012, with several analysts putting AWS’ business value at $19 billion.
In terms of productivity improvement as a result of the Web, the benefits too run into trillions of dollars. The 2013 McKinsey report, Lions go Digital: The Internet’s Transformative Potential in Africa, says that by 2025, Africa will have 600 million Internet users adding $300 billion in contribution to GDP, and $300 billion in productivity gains. Annual E-commerce sales will top $75 billion.
It sounds all good but we have work to do before we can really reap the benefits. By the end of 2014, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) predicts that more than 40 per cent of the world’s population will be using the Internet.
Yet the same report predicts that in Africa, this figure will be a paltry 19 per cent. This is because many in Africa cannot afford to access the Internet.
The costs of an entry level Internet connection in most countries in Africa ranges from 30 to over 100 percent of average monthly incomes.
Across the developed world, citizens generally spend just two per cent or less of their average income for a fixed-line connection. If we are to unlock the true benefits of the Internet for Africa, we must drive prices down, fast.
Recognising the transformative potential of affordable access, the United Nations Broadband Commission has come up with a target of entry-level broadband services priced at less than 5% of average monthly income. Yet cost is not the only challenge.
Access too is a limiting factor especially in remote rural areas where we must encourage shared infrastructure in order to minimize capital expenditure by multiple providers.
Other issues include literacy, relevant local content, availability of electricity, and the information and technology (IT) literacy. Although literacy levels are rising in Africa, we now must employ new strategies to deal with adult literacy.
Perhaps dealing with basic IT literacy may be the best strategy because there is online content that can greatly help reduce illiteracy in Africa.
This will necessitate provision of electricity to rural areas. Further, development of local content may be the greatest driver of dealing with illiteracy.
Last year saw the launch of a new coalition to tackle many of these challenges - the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI – www.a4ai.org).
A4AI brings together prominent players from the private sector, public sector, and civil society to provide a unified voice and co-ordinated focus in addressing the shared goal of open, affordable access to the Internet in the developing world.
What is remarkable about A4AI is that it has brought together diverse organizations – Google, Microsoft, Facebook, the Internet Society to name just a few of its 50+ members - who often have different positions in business and politics, and has united them around the goal of affordable access.
A4AI works closely with country governments to drive prices down via policy and regulatory reform. The Alliance publishes recommendations on policy and regulatory best practices; undertakes research, and develops case studies to bolster the evidence base; and encourages systemic change through deep country engagements along with a range of incentives.
Nigeria, Ghana and Mozambique are the first three African countries that have signed up with the Alliance to date. Africa must leverage on such opportunities to improve affordability and access to the vital resource of the Internet.
The writer is the honorary Chair of the Alliance for Affordable Internet, a senior lecturer at University of Nairobi and a former permanent secretary, Ministry of Information and Communication.