Internet Availability Crucial in Rural Africa

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The internet is a hub where industry, technology, education, business, art and entertainment converge. It’s used as everything from a digital library to a means of communicating with friends and loved ones. It is the dominant media of our time, and integrates elements of traditional broadcast media, like television and radio, with millions of daily users downloading podcasts and streaming videos on sites like Youtube. Most traditional print media outlets, looking to cut production costs and potentially reach a larger global audience, have also embraced digital, web-based extensions of their publications.

The keyword is connectivity, and the people of the world who lack access to the internet are, in many ways, being left out of the loop.

According to InternetWorldStats.com, only 15.6 percent of the African population has access to the internet. Although the continent is home to about 15.3 percent of the global population, Africans make up only 7 percent of the total number of internet subscribers in the world, with the majority of all internet activity in the continent concentrated in South Africa, Morocco and Egypt.

According to the BBC, fewer than 1 percent of Africans have access to broadband connections. Africans rely largely on satellite internet, which is itself a widely underused resource for people living in rural communities. Certainly, Africans living in more densely populated cities will have access to kiosks and cafes, but there needs to be greater accessibility for those living in more remote areas.

Just like the internet itself, satellite internet technology, which could ultimately yield untold advantages for those who have historically been excluded from the world wide web, was made possible by the contributions of several highly imaginative individuals representing multiple fields.

Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, perhaps best known for his 2001 book series, was one extremely important contributor. He was commonly referred to as the “prophet of the space age” as he made several astonishing predictions about future technology, including the internet and the personal computer as we know it today.

Clarke was interviewed by the Australian Broadcasting Company in 1974, standing before a massive, primitive computer, which occupied an entire room. When the interviewer asked how the world would be different for his young son in the year 2001 (when the young man would be a full-grown adult), Clarke stated that, in the year 2001, that he would have “in his own house, not a computer as big as this, but a console through which he can talk to the friendly, local computer and get all the information he needs for his everyday life, like his bank statements, his theater reservations…all the information you need living in a complex modern society.” When asked about the potential hazards of becoming a society overly dependent on computer technology, Clarke suggested that, ultimately, this technology would enrich our society, and allow us greater degrees of personal and professional autonomy.

Decades earlier, In 1945, Clarke correctly predicted geostationary satellites — satellites which sit at a fixed point above the earth’s equator, and orbit in synchronization with the earth itself. Clarke had elaborated on this concept in his paper titled Extra-Terrestrial Relays – Can Rocket Stations Give Worldwide Radio Coverage?, for which he would receive the Franklin Institute’s Stuart Ballantine Medal in 1963. Decades later, the development of geostationary satellites would prove to be a crucial step towards making satellite internet a reality.

Another important figure was none other than Howard Hughes, the famous business mogul, aviator, and filmmaker. Hughes founded the Hughes Aircraft Company in 1932, as a division of his family’s business, Hughes Tool Company. The company was originally created to develop aerospace technology. Its Hughes Space and Communications Company subsidiary (now Hughesnet, a satellite internet provider in the United States) was formed in 1961, and began an extremely important collaboration with NASA — The Syncom projects. Hughes and NASA made history in 1963 with the launch of Syncom 2, the first geosynchronous communications satellite. In 1964, they launched Syncom 3, the world’s first geostationary satellite, effectively realizing Clarke’s dream. Syncom 3 was also equipped with a wideband channel so that it could transmit television signals, and was used to broadcast the 1964 Summer Olympics (held in Tokyo) in the United States.

It took the diligence and imagination of these individuals to get us where we are today. Making the internet more accessible to everyone in the world, children and teenagers especially, is a crucial step towards empowering people everywhere to cultivate their minds, thus equipping them to be the dreamers and innovators of tomorrow. Much work needs to be done in terms of reducing the disparity between those countries where the internet is relatively ubiquitous, and those countries where the internet is simply not accessible.

According to Achieve in Africa, the teacher-to-pupil ratio in classrooms throughout Africa does not provide for much intimacy in African classrooms, with an average of 40 students for every one teacher in sub-Saharan Africa, and well over 60 students to every one teacher in many other countries. The internet could provide a wonderful supplement for coursework in these classes. It could also, perhaps, even be used to help combat the high illiteracy rates in Africa; Achieve in Africa states that 40% of African citizens older than 15, and 50% of the continent’s women older than 25, are incapable of reading. Swift action must be taken to remedying these problems, and satellite internet and the opportunities it provides might just yield part of the solution.

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