In the wake of a U.N. survey highlighting poor Internet access in a swath of sub-Saharan African countries, industry insiders say government policies can go a long way toward spurring connectivity and infrastructure development.
A recent survey by the U.N. Broadband Commission reported that eight of the 10 countries with the lowest levels of Internet availability in the world are in sub-Saharan Africa. The eight countries are Ethiopia, Niger, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Somalia, Burundi, Eritrea and South Sudan. Internet penetration in all eight countries is less than 2 percent od the population.
Some 2.9 billion people, or 40 percent of the global population, are expected to be online by the end of 2014 and 50 percent by 2017, according to the report. But Internet penetration in Africa remains low, with just few countries reaching the 40 percent mark.
Lack of access to the Internet has deprived many Africans of the opportunity to take full advantage of e-learning as well as online financial, data and health services. Industry analysts and tech leaders say that governments can shape policies that will spur development of broadband access.
"Governments must stop the oligopolistic behavior of some large sub marine cable operators (mainly in West Africa) which are keeping the price for international bandwidth prohibitively high," said Dov Bar-Gera, the CEO of YooMee Africa, a broadband access provider.
YooMee launched West Africa's first TD-LTE network in Côte d'Ivoire and plans to expand to other areas of West and Central Africa.
Governments also need to "reduce or cancel import duties on all telecommunication infrastructure equipment and on Internet access devices, [and] take away from large operators unused or underused spectrum and distribute it to new players," Bar-Gera said.
Bar-Gera urged venture capitalists and government-backed development initiatives to fund startups in the technology field and finance projects in the single-digit million level.
Countries that have managed to enjoy rapid growth in broadband penetration are those that have made policy interventions supported by appropriate legal and regulatory frameworks to encourage investment into the sector, said Cosmas Zavazava, chief of department for project support and knowledge management at telecommunications development bureau at the International Telecommunications Union.
"Many of the countries developed well-thought national broadband plans," Zavazava said, adding that Africa has a mixed bag of countries: It is the continent with the biggest number of least-developed countries, landlocked developing states and small- island developing states -- each having different challenges.
"Having said that, mobile-broadband is growing very fast. Mobile broadband penetration in Africa (will) reach close to 20 percent by end of 2014, up from less than 2 percent four years earlier," Zavazava noted via email. "All regions continue to show double-digit growth rates but Africa stands out with a growth rate of over 40 percent -- twice as high as the global average."
A decline in the price smartphones would increase broadband penetration in Africa, said Thecla Mbongue, a senior research analyst at Informa Telecoms & Media. She added that 3G network rollout should be encouraged, as the infrastructure is "less expensive to deploy and to subscribe to than fixed broadband."