Africa

Liberians hope long wait for the web is finally over

Fibre optic cable being pulled from the sea

Getting online is difficult in Liberia. Connections are slow and expensive. Earlier this month, a fibre optic cable was brought ashore which some claim will transform the country's communications.

A crowd gathers on a sandy beach near central Monrovia to watch as a diver emerges from the sea.

He's pulling a rope which a team on the beach helps drag ashore.

Eventually, a black cable pops out of the water and slithers up the sand, prompting cheers from the crowd.

In the background, several miles offshore, a French ship is at anchor. It's dragging the cable 17,000km (10,000 miles) from France to Cape Town, via the west coast of Africa.

The cable, which is just two inches thick but stuffed with fibre optics, is known as the Africa Coast to Europe (ACE) system, run by a consortium led by French Telecom. It will eventually provide broadband connectivity to more than 20 countries.

Celebration

News of the cable's arrival on land is welcomed by a small group of men in an internet cafe in Monrovia. For them, getting online currently costs around $2 per hour - more money than many Liberians earn in a day.

"The internet here is very slow," says Emmanuel Dolo who is trying to apply for a scholarship online. "Sometimes you pay for an hour and only get to use 20 minutes. It just keeps loading and loading. It's frustrating."

Liberia's business community feels the same way, says Ciata Victor, a businesswoman who returned from abroad in 2003 after the prolonged civil war - which destroyed much of the country's infrastructure - ended.

"I moved my company home from America to Liberia and internet access has been extremely challenging. I have paid as high as $449 a month," she says.

Cheaper and faster

The current high cost and relatively slow internet connection in Liberia is not surprising, says Calestous Juma, Professor of the Practice of International Development at Harvard, and an expert in telecommunications in Africa.

"Fibre optic cables have more capacity and provide more consistent data flow than the current satellite connections being used," he says. "Satellite communication involves sending a signal into orbit and back. The delay, or latency, can take up to a second and that affects the quality of communication."

Initial start-up costs for satellite transmission are also very high, he adds.

That's in part why there is so much excitement over the arrival of the fibre optic cable.

"In West Africa our penetration is very low," says Blidi Elliott who works on a World Bank project to increase the geographical reach of broadband in Liberia. "During the civil war years the political will needed to bring broadband to the country was not there." It is now, he says.

An internet boom?

For Liberia, as well as Gambia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, the ACE submarine cable is the first connection to a fibre optic system.

And it's part of a developing pattern in Africa, where currently only 9.6% of people are web users, compared to around 65% of Europeans. Africa may be lagging behind, but recent reports, including a study from the World Bank, suggest it's on the verge of an internet boom.

Mr Elliott says he's confident that internet use in Liberia will increase by 75% in the next four years, even though many people have never even used a computer.

Mr Juma from Harvard says that may not be the obstacle it seems.

Image caption The ship is laying a cable from France to Cape Town

"Africa already has the highest growth rate in mobile phone usage in the world today. The continent has the second largest number of mobile subscribers after Asia, having overtaken Europe and the Americas this year," he says. "Smart phones that support voice and internet will become the preferred device for Africa, and much of the continent might bypass the PC revolution altogether."

In short, he says, a future defined by technological convergence means most Africans will access the internet using their mobile phones.

Mr Elliott agrees that the explosion in mobile phone use is a measure of what is possible.

"Any illiterate person, any farmer who has never sat a day in school, can use a cell phone," he says. "Any old woman sitting in the market can use a cell phone. And if you can use a cell phone, it's just a next step to go online."

Obstacles remain

But if that step sounds easy, the next practical steps for this project in Liberia, sound a lot tougher.

"Landing the cable in Monrovia is a first important step," says Mr Juma. "The next will be installing terrestrial cables for the national and local networks, as well as for mobile phone towers. This will require major additional investment."

The ACE cable will eventually connect 23 countries including Mauritania, Gabon and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Mali and Niger, which are landlocked, will be connected via an overland cable.

Project leaders say, all being well, the cable system in Liberia will be switched on in the middle of next year.

Listen to this story at PRI's The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, Public Radio International, and WGBH in Boston.

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