Zimbabwe finally to emerge from internet dark ages

Feb 1, 2011

One of the clearest and most frustrating signs of how Zimbabwe's decade of economic turmoil has held the country back is the shockingly poor, slow and expensive internet service.

It is startling to be in smart and modern internet cafe in downtown Harare and have levels of connectivity that are far below what one would find in some decrepit internet rooms in much poorer and 'less advanced' countries. Cellphone service has improved a lot in recent years but is still below par.

All this may be about to change following news that the landlocked southern African state is on the verge of being wired to the rest of the world through an undersea cable.

The cable link forms the nerve centre of a $22.7 million Information and Commutations Technology (ICT) broadband infrastructure that will connect to the sea through Mozambique, and thence worldwide.

...261 km fibre optic cable linking Harare to the eastern border city of Mutare, which will be commissioned in a few weeks.

By 2014 the country will be internationally networked, with about 1 340 km of cables, carrying massive amounts of mobile phone, television, internet and other telecommunication signals. Vast job opportunities will open up while government bureaucracy, costs of internet access and doing business will be lowered, say experts.

But expensive broadband connectivity is due to the Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT), the satellite system currently in use. It involves transmission of signals by ground antennas rented from international companies at a very high cost, which are far less effective than the cheaper fibre optic. Figures collected by the Posts and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ) show that in 2008, Zimbabwe had the least mobile phone penetration rate in SADC countries, with only 1.65 million subscribers.

Growth in the ICT sector almost doubled to15.2 percent in 2009, from 8 percent in 2000, according to Finance Minister Tendai Biti.

Recent estimates by the International Telecommunications Unions (ITU) put the number of Zimbabwe’s internet users as of December 2009 at about 1.5 million, some13 percent of the population. This was up from merely 50 000 users or 0.3 percent of the population in 2000. Industry experts saw this as a great achievement, considering that earlier the Global Information Technology Report 2007-08 ranked Zimbabwe in 125th position on the Networked Readiness Index (NRI), out of 127 countries surveyed by the World Economic Forum.

While everyone's attention seems to be on the country's messy politics, this technical development will easily be one of the most important and welcome events in many years. It will open up vast new business, entertainment and knowledge opportunities of all kinds that many Zimbabweans cannot even conceive of today.

With the Twitter and Facebook-aided popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, giving a highly literate population full access to the full potential of today's information communication tools could also eventually help Zimbabweans against governments inclined to limit their information and freedoms.


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