The government of Nigeria, Africa's largest telecom market by investment and subscription, announced a plan to more than double its number of Internet users to 70 million by 2015 in a bid to maintain its top slot in the region.
Through the Ministry of Communication Technology, the government plans to improve access to ICT among marginalized people, including phased subsidization of bandwidth provisions to improve network services to rural areas, said Minister Omobola Johnson.
In addition, Omobola said the ministry would create an investor- and business-friendly environment including through spending on ICT infrastructure and the power grid. A number of undersea cables deliver broadband service to Nigeria, but most rural areas remain unconnected, while in some areas access has remained prohibitively expensive. The availability of ICT infrastructure in rural areas in Nigeria is expected to have an enormous impact on the rural communities that presently are unable to communicate and surf the Internet.
Lack of access to the national grid has over the years been a major challenge hindering the rollout of mobile and Internet connectivity in many parts of the region.
ISPs (Internet service providers) view rural areas as economically unviable to recoup their investment because of the high cost of running base stations that use fuel. And, in Nigeria, as in many other countries in Africa, the rollout of Internet and mobile phone services is hindered by an unreliable power supply because of low generation capacity.
But this is changing as most African governments including Nigeria have started electrification projects aimed at connecting rural areas to national grids.
However, there has been insignificant broadband penetration in many African nations because governments have not formulated broadband policies to regulate and stimulate usage at every level -- national, provincial and municipal.
Currently, 33.5 million of Nigeria's 150 million people are Internet users, while South Africa, Africa's second-largest telecom market, has fewer than 6 million Internet users out of a population of 44 million.
Africa is experiencing faster-than-expected mobile phone communication growth, but Internet penetration has remained low, prompting international broadband service providers including the U.K.-based broadband service provider Augere to enter the market.
That low Internet penetration underlines the challenges African governments are facing in expanding Internet connectivity to rural areas.
Nigeria's move comes only two weeks after the Zambian government pledged to "continue to engage the private sector and to come up with policies that [make] it easier to promote the proliferation of ICT at all levels and to all parts of the country," said Ministry of Communications and Transport Permanent Secretary Dominic Sichinga. The ICT sector there is far from making any meaningful contribution to Zambian economic development, according to the government, because Internet penetration remains at only 10 percent.
As in Nigeria, the failure by service providers to expand Internet services to rural areas, and the cost associated with getting services and facilities such as computers, has stifled the rollout of Internet access. The Zambian information and communication technology sector only has 1 million Internet users and 6 million mobile phone users.
"We have always wanted a situation where all people would be able to access broadband services on their phones and laptops to enjoy multimedia services," said Amos Kalunga, a telecom analyst at Computer Society of Zambia, in an interview.