Monday, July 23, 2007

Africa, mostly offline, struggles to get on the Internet

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 technology 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 national telecommunications company, for $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," Albert Butare, the Rwandan telecommunications minister, said.

Wyler says he sees things differently and that he and the Rwandan officials will probably never agree on why their joint venture has been so slow to get off the ground. But Terracom's tale is more than a story about a business dispute in Rwanda. It is also emblematic of what can happen when good intentions run into the technical, political and business realities of Africa.

Attempts to bring affordable high-speed Internet service to the masses have made little headway on the continent. Less than 4 percent of the African 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, years of civil conflict destroyed communications networks, 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 United States, increasing expenses and delivery times. About 75 percent of African Internet traffic is routed this way and costs African countries billions of extra dollars each year that they would not incur if their infrastructure was up to date.

"Most African governments haven't paid much attention to their infrastructure," said Vincent Oria, an associate professor of computer science at the New Jersey Institute of Technology who is from the Ivory Coast. "In places where hunger, AIDS and poverty are rampant, they didn't see it as critical until now."

Rwandan officials were especially interested in wiring schools, seeing information technology as crucial to modernizing the rural economy.

But as of mid-July, 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 Terracom seems more interested in tapping the more lucrative cellphone market than in being an Internet service provider.

In November, Wyler stepped down as chief executive of Terracom, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family. He still serves on the board.

Wyler said by telephone from his Boston home that he would not address the government's criticism. He said he did not want to be quoted as saying anything negative. But he said there were some things he had not anticipated, particularly the technical challenges of linking the Rwandan Internet network to the rest of the world.

"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. But given what we started from, I still think we have accomplished a lot. In the beginning there were a few people with Internet service. Now there are thousands."

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

"We have almost no natural resources and no seaports in Rwanda, which leaves us only with trying to become a knowledge-based society," said Romain Murenzi, the Rwandan minister of science, technology and scientific research.

Wyler said he had not been involved in Terracom for nearly 10 months and could not comment on its current operations.

Christopher Lundh, Terracom's new chief executive and a former executive of Gateway Communications in London, has worked in several African countries. He now lives and works full time in Rwanda, and many government officials say Terracom's performance has improved under his leadership.

Lundh said there were problems with the company's operations in the past but that the Rwandan government was responsible for some of the delays.

"We would get to schools that don't even have electricity or computers," he said. "That is not our fault."

In addition, he said that many of the complaints about the company concerned things beyond its ability to control. Getting adequate bandwidth remains a constant challenge. Like most telecommunications companies in eastern Africa, Terracom depends on satellites for Internet service. Satellite service is much slower than cable because of delays in the signals. Satellites also provide less bandwidth than cable.

Adding to the problem is that most of the satellites serving Africa were launched nearly 20 years ago and are aging or going out of commission. A satellite set to go into service last year blew up on the launching pad. Power is also an issue, as intermittent power failures in Rwanda hamper efforts to provide a steady electricity source.

Despite these limitations and earlier setbacks, Lundh said Terracom was moving ahead with plans to give Rwanda the most advanced Internet infrastructure in Africa. A nationwide wireless connection should begin operating near year-end, he said.

Africa, mostly offline, struggles to get on the Internet - International Herald Tribune