Tags: Liberia | internet | war | online

War-Torn Liberia Struggles to Get Online

Tuesday, 12 January 2010 01:14 PM

MONOVIA, Liberia — It's mid afternoon in a sweaty office in downtown Monrovia.

The ‘load’ icon spins furiously in the top right corner of the screen, trying desperately to bring up the home page. Two minutes after typing the url into the browser, most of the text on the landing page has appeared. At 4:25, almost all of the small photos had loaded, and at 11:54, the lead photo and sidebar ads finally appeared in full, the spinning icon on the top finally stopping just after the 12-minute mark.

This is the reality of internet use in much of West Africa, where IT infrastructure lags behind international norms. Even in South Africa — which is significantly ahead of the continent’s technological curve — an IT company pitted a carrier pigeon strapped with a 4 GB USB memory stick against their internet connection: The pigeon traveled the 60 miles before 4% of the file had loaded.

In Liberia, sending even a 4 MB file can be an onerous task on a good connection. It's impossible in the public internet cafes.

Other African countries face similar challenges in developing their internet connections. Rwanda is working to become Africa's WiFi capital, while Tanzania is hoping a fiber optic cable connection will jump-start its internet usage. Zimbabwe's limited internet capabilities has not stopped Facebook from taking off. In Kenya, the internet helped concerned bloggers develop a cutting edge crowd-sourcing program to chart crises.

“Internet right now is actually a huge challenge,” stated Frans Joubert, CEO of the Liberia’s largest cellular provider, Lonestar Cell. A seasoned veteran of communications development in developing and post-conflict African nations, Joubert identifies the major problem as the inability to access modern IT infrastructure outside of the country.

This complaint is echoed by Ben Wolo, the Managing Director of LIBTELCO, a government-run entity that supplies internet and landline services and is at the forefront of developing Liberia's communication capacity.

“One of the biggest challenges we have right now with internet is bandwidth,” he explained from his office. “We don’t have access to any fiber connectivity with the rest of the world, [meaning that] all communication in and out of Liberia is done through satellite, and satellite is extremely expensive.”

The satellites transmit to and from high-speed connections all over the world. This means pages such as Google will often appear with subtext in Hebrew or Arabic — because that is where the default settings for the satellite host line sits. And although this information comes through the satellites painfully slowly, and fails regularly, it still comes at extremely high costs.

Wolo explains that a 1 Milllion Bits Per Second (‘1 Meg’) internet connection — a typical size for an American household — via satellite in West Africa costs anywhere from $US 6,000 — 10, 000 per month. In the United States, a user will pay approximately $50 per month for this same connection.

To rectify these problems of cost and size, physical connections to fiber optic cables need to be made. Lonestar — the local division of cellular giant MTN — is among those looking into doing just this.

Rumors earlier in the fall claimed that Lonestar was considering plugging into an offshore cable running between Spain and Nigeria. Joubert now says “the most viable cable is probably the undersea cable from the Ivory Coast.”

This, he estimates, will come at the initial investment of $US 40 million to connect to this line and build the landing station. Millions more would be required for laying local fiber optic cables, and linking up the country to high speed internet, something Joubert, Wolo and others see as a cost that would inevitably have to be shared by various stakeholders.

“I think we’re still a couple of years away,” said Joubert.

Eric M.K. Osiakwan, executive secretary of the African Internet Service Providers Association (AfrISPA), emphasizes that although none of these lines are expected to land in Liberia until 2011, development of national IT infrastructure must be set up in advance, in order for Liberia to participate effectively in modern society.

“We live in a knowledge economy, hence both developed and developing countries face the challenge of equipping themselves [with communications technologies],” Osiawakan said. “Developing countries have the opportunity to leapfrog, and especially a post-conflict country like Liberia has a clean slate to build new technology and engage at an advanced level … This needs to be a high priority.”

Wolo also believes developing a modern IT backbone for the country should take precedence on Liberia’s agenda, and views this as a critical step in the overall development of the country.

“Connectivity and communication is a catalyst for growth. If we can have easy access to communication, easy access to information, you will create an environment for growth, and I think that will make a major difference in the development sector," said Wolo.

“If you build the medium, the rest will follow in a more sustainable manner,” he said.

Joubert holds a similar view on this issue.

“We all know that if roads in the country grow, the economy grows. Electricity makes the country grow, and the third one is communication … These days its all about internet data. I think it’s currently a great impediment to Liberia.”

An Africa-wide Vodafone survey in 2005 found penetration of mobile phone technology in developing countries to be “strongly positively correlated with income per capita.”

Joubert says there is no reason to believe the same results would not come with development of internet structure.

“You need communication everywhere,” he emphasized. “Communication has a leading role to play in development.”

With broadband set to role out in 2010, and high hopes of fiber optic connectivity in time for the 2011 elections, this could be a critical step for Liberia as it continues to rebuild the nation, after more than 20 years of instability.

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MONOVIA, Liberia — It's mid afternoon in a sweaty office in downtown Monrovia.
Tuesday, 12 January 2010 01:14 PM
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