The West Africa Cable System recently landed in Ghana, extending the reach of the new undersea telecommunications cable that will eventually run from South Africa to Western Europe. In an email interview, Patricia K. McCormick, an expert in developing-country telecommunications policy at Wayne State University, discussed Africa's telecommunications infrastructure.
WPR: What is the current state of Africa's telecommunications infrastructure?
Patricia K. McCormick: If the wealth and socio-economic health of a region is defined by its ability to participate in the networked economy, Africa is indeed impoverished. In an era of accelerated technological change, Africa's technological dependency and underdevelopment impairs its ability to compete in the global economy. The capital-intensive nature of the sector, coupled with Africa's renter position in terms of technology and its consequent inability to control costs, also places unattainable demands on the continent. Although Africa has witnessed extraordinarily rapid growth in terms of the number of mobile cellular subscribers and Internet users, its levels of penetration for information and communication technology (ICT) are still far behind that of the rest of the world, with very few states achieving ICT levels comparable to global averages. The number of telephone lines has increased in absolute terms on the continent, but the growth rate needs to be much greater to have a positive impact and outpace population growth. Furthermore, the rural population, which comprises the majority of Africans, has not begun to fully benefit from the deployment of new communication technologies. Mobile subscribers, notably prepaid plans, dominate Africa's telecommunications markets and have quickly outpaced the number of landline subscribers, reflective of a global trend. Nonetheless, both fixed and mobile broadband penetration levels remain very low, and in the majority of African states less than 5 percent of the population uses the Internet.